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‘I don’t like to be touched’: Video shows 10-year-old autistic boy getting arrested at school

Luanne Haygood filmed her son being arrested by Okeechobee County deputies at his school on April 12, after she said said they were called in for testing. (Video: Luanne Haygood)
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John Benjamin Haygood was slouched in a chair with his hand over his eyes.

A school resource officer at Okeechobee Achievement Academy in Florida stood over the 10-year-old boy as his mother asked: “Does he have the same rights as an adult?”

Then, the officer reached for the boy’s wrists.

“I don’t want to be touched,” John Benjamin said, throwing his hands in the air. “I don’t like to be touched.”

His mother, Luanne Haygood, who was filming the emotional scene, said she and her son had been called into the school for state standardizing testing April 12; while they were there, she said, officers arrested her son for an incident that occurred in October.

He spent the night behind bars at a juvenile facility, Haygood said.

Haygood said John Benjamin, who has been diagnosed with autism, had kicked and scratched his paraprofessional educator (also known as an educational assistant) and, unknown to his own family, had an outstanding warrant for battery on a school board employee, a third-degree felony.

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In the video of John Benjamin’s arrest, which went viral after Haygood posted it online, her child shouted through tears: “This is so f—— dumb, Mama.”

“I didn’t know I was going to get arrested like this,” the boy added, as the officers secured his wrists. “I don’t want to be touched. Please don’t touch me.”

As the officers escorted the boy to the police vehicle, his mother asked them whether she could ride with her son to the jail; one of the officers told her no.

“I don’t know what’s going on, Mama!” he screamed. “I don’t understand.”

“I know, honey,” his mother told him. “He has autism — he doesn’t know what’s going on, he’s scared to death, he’s 10 years old!”

Haygood, from Okeechobee, Fla., said her son, who was diagnosed with autism two years ago, has had an individualized education program (IEP) since he started school and was assigned a paraprofessional educator last year. But, Haygood said, he had been having issues with his aide, claiming he was hurting him, and the school would not assign a new one.

According to police records, John Benjamin had allegedly threatened to kill the educator in mid-October. When the school resource officer responded to the threat, the boy said he was upset because “his work was too hard” and the educator “did not help him enough,” according to an incident report.

The educator agreed to help the child more, according to the report.

Several days later, John Benjamin’s father met with the school principal and the educator to address allegations that the aide had pinched the boy. The educator denied the claims, according to an incident report.

The paraprofessional educator subsequently reported that John Benjamin was being disruptive in class, “throwing paper balls around the classroom and hitting other students,” according to a police report and probable cause affidavit.

“When John Benjamin was asked to go to timeout he refused,” according to the court documents. The educator “attempted to remove the student and sent him back to the timeout place. At this point, John Benjamin started kicking and scratching and punching” him.

The educator “had to restrain the student, he advised he came around the student and wrapped his arms around the upper chest as to not restrict child’s breathing,” according to the documents.

It was that most recent incident that led to her son’s arrest, Haygood said. Though, it was not known why the boy’s family was not informed of his outstanding warrant.

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Scott Badesch, president of the Autism Society of America, said the organization has been in contact with Haygood to help provide support services and legal counsel.

“It appears the school’s responses are beyond wrong and evil,” he said. “It is a tremendous failure by two allegedly responsible institutions — the police and the school.”

Badesch said the Autism Society is examining the case to determine whether it should ask the Justice Department and the Education Department to investigate any wrongdoing.

When asked what she hopes to accomplish by going public with the arrest video, Haygood said she just wants her son “to have the same education every other child is entitled to and receives.”

Similar cases have been seen in other states. The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating one in Virginia, following a complaint that Richmond public schools unfairly punish black students and students with disabilities more harshly than others.

As The Washington Post’s Susan Svrluga reported, the complaint cited state statistics that black students with disabilities were nearly 13 times as likely as non-disabled white students to be punished with short-term suspensions in the 2014-2015 school year.

The complaint, filed in August by the Legal Aid Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, also alleged that although students with disabilities made up 17.7 percent of the student population, they accounted for 29.8 percent of students who were suspended short term and 37.4 percent of students who were suspended long term.

Regarding John Benjamin’s case, Okeechobee County schools spokeswoman Renee Geeting said the district cannot disclose specific information about incidents involving students. But, she noted, the district would not “invite someone to one of our campuses for the sole purpose to arrest.”

“The district routinely assists students by providing services from our board certified behavioral analyst, licensed mental health counselors, school social workers, and psychologists,” she added in a statement. “As a team, these individuals develop interventions, conduct assessments, and offer support both at school and in the home in order to assist students and families.”

Prosecutor Ashley Albright, who met Wednesday with the paraprofessional who pressed the charges, said he plans to offer John Benjamin a “nonjudicial sanction” to provide the boy with services, including counseling, rather than to pursue any criminal charges against him.

“It’s clear from his history, even at such a young age, that I think he needs some assistance so that he doesn’t end up in the criminal justice system in the future,” the prosecutor said, noting that he has discussed the offer with the state Department of Juvenile Justice.

But John Benjamin’s mother said she would not accept it.

“Frankly, I’m offended by that,” Haygood said. “That offends me, and it angers me. They’re still viewing him as a criminal; they know he has a disability, and they’re still treating him like a criminal.”

“He does not need criminal diversion because he didn’t do anything wrong!” she said. “I will not give up my right to a speedy trial. The criminal justice system needs to be educated; the school system needs to be educated. My child does not need to be diverted.”

The program director at the 19th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida said the juvenile diversion program is an alternative to trial, a possible conviction and a criminal record. The program may include appearing before a teen court and accepting community service or counseling.

Although the participant must waive his right to an attorney and a trial, it is not an admission of guilt and, if the child successfully completes the program, he will not have a record, according to the court.

John Benjamin is due in court for his arraignment May 11.

This story, originally published April 19, has been updated.

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