A 7-Year-Old With Autism Was Handcuffed and Interrogated for Nearly 40 Minutes at School

"You ever been charged with a crime before?" the officer said to the boy. "Well, you’re fixing to be.”
October 13, 2020, 4:34pm
Screen shot from bodycam footage of incident at Pressly School in Statesville, North Carolina.

Newly released bodycam footage shows how a North Carolina school resource officer handcuffed a 7-year-old boy with autism and threatened him for nearly 40 minutes as staffers stood by. 

Now the boy’s mother is suing the state, the school district, and the officer for negligence, emotional distress, and violating the Constitution. The bodycam footage reveals the details of the September 2018 incident at the Pressly School in Statesville, North Carolina, prompted by the boy allegedly began spitting in his classroom after a period of bustling activity among the students. When the bodycam footage begins, Officer Michael Fattaleh arrives in a room where two unidentified staff members are seen restraining the boy by his arms. The officer quickly takes control of the situation, placing the boy, who stood just 4-foot-6 and weighed 80 pounds at the time, according to the Washington Post, in handcuffs face-down on the floor. He then spends the next 38 minutes asking the boy a series of questions typically reserved for an offending adult, restraining him until his mother arrives.

“He’s mine now,” he tells the two adults before turning his attention to the boy. 

“Don’t move,” he says to the boy. “You spit on me, I’ll put a hood on you.”

At several points in the video, the officer makes certain concessions to ensure the boy’s safety and comfort, including putting a pillow under his head, having someone remove his glasses, and asking him if he can breathe properly. He then turns back to speaking about the boy’s offenses and holding him down when he begins to thrash against the handcuffs.

“I’m not playing that game. I don’t do the spitting. I don’t mind the walking. I don’t mind the occasional shove,” Fattahel says at one point in the video. “But you don’t spit here. He’s going to get charged. If you, my friend, are not acquainted with the juvenile justice system, you will be very shortly. You ever been charged with a crime before? Well, you’re fixing to be.”

The two other adults in the room do not intervene, even as the boy begins to cry. When his mother arrives asking whether handcuffing her son was necessary, Fattahel says the boy was being combative and will be charged with one count of assault.

“How can you charge a special needs kid with a count of assault?” she asks Fattahel.

This question is now at the center of her federal lawsuit, filed Friday, against the city of Statesville, officer Fattahel, and the Iredell-Statesville Board of Education. The mother, who has not shared her name with the public, told WSCO-TV 9 that she was infuriated to find her son handcuffed on the ground. She explained that he suffers from severe separation anxiety and the episode was likely triggered by that.

Fattahel’s lawyer Ashley Cannon told the Charlotte Observer that the state’s Bureau of Investigation conducted an independent review of the incident, concluding that Fattahel did nothing wrong. The officer has since resigned from his post. The boy’s mother removed her son from the school and quit her job in order to homeschool him.

Since the death of George Floyd in May and the wave of support for police reform that followed, police departments have begun to reckon with the need for unarmed behavioral professionals to handle situations with people who suffer from mental health issues. Several cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Albuquerque, have promised to look into transitioning cops out of responding to non-violent complaints about the homeless and the mentally ill. In many states, this restructuring of responsibility would prevent officers who work in schools like Fattahel from handling these situations in most cases.

Last month, bodycam footage showing the March arrest of Daniel Prude in Rochester once again sparked conversations over the role police should play in dealing with the mentally ill. Prude, who died in police custody after he was restrained on the sidewalk and had a spit hood placed on his head, was having a mental health episode at the time of the fatal arrest. Bodycam footage showing the shooting of 13-year-old Linden Cameron was also made available to the public last month. The teenager, who is also autistic, was shot 11 times. He survived the encounter with police.