Video shows 9-year-old forcibly restrained at Agassiz

Published: Jul. 24, 2018 at 10:30 PM CDT
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"When I first saw that video, I cried," says Victoria Johnson. "They violated my son's rights. They know that. And I know that."

Johnson was initially excited when her 9-year-old son with special needs was chosen to attend Fargo Schools' setting-d pilot program at Agassiz. She says she was promised special programs and supports - but that's not what she got.

"He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder," says Johnson. "He gets up in the middle of the night sweating and crying and he still – in his head – they're there."

Johnson's son's anxiety skyrocketed after he was forced into a room at school and pinned to the ground by a Fargo Police Officer and the school’s principal.

"You have somebody laying on top of him - what if he stops breathing? He dies. I wouldn't have gotten a phone call from him. I would've gotten a call from the school saying your son is dead. That was the biggest thing that hit me. That I would never hear his voice again," Johnson says.

Advocates say the hold is dangerous, illegal, and proof that Fargo Schools isn't following its own policies. The district's policy states physical restraint should only be used to protect people from imminent danger and that children should never be held while lying on the ground.

"I think unfortunately, too often people have different definitions of what imminent risk really means and really looks like," says Barb Stanton, a mental health therapist at the Anne Carlsen Center. “If a child has been put in a restraint and seclusion, the plan has failed.”

“We don’t know what prompted the restraint because we don’t have any documentation and there wasn’t any communication with the mother,” says Brenda Ruehl, a disabilities advocate with the Protection & Advocacy Project. "They did a floor restraint. It was an extended restraint. And they're not keeping the documentation of the reports and the log they're supposed to keep."

Advocates say this problem is bigger than Agassiz.

"Children aren't just being restrained in level d. Children are being restrained throughout the Fargo school district. So this isn't a problem that was exclusive to the level d at Agassiz. This is a problem in the school district," Ruehl says. “There is a culture in the district of restraining children and that makes me really sad.”

“Seclusion and restraint has an impact on everyone. I’ve talked to police officers, teachers, para-professionals, other school staff – who all talk about having to be involved or having to witness a child being restrained impacts them in a very significant and negative way,” adds Stanton. “I've also done intakes on children who have witnessed their classmates being restrained and hauled out of a classroom or have seen their classmates handcuffed, taken out of a school, sometimes not to return. And for any child – that can be really terrifying."

Fargo's School Board ended the setting d pilot program at Agassiz after criticism from parents and community members, but during its summer work session members will discuss creating a setting d only facility at Agassiz in the future - which is something Johnson says can't be allowed to happen.

"I hope that the community and the people can look at this and say, 'We need change. We need new policy. We need to hold individuals accountable. We need to hold the school district accountable. We need to make sure that they have to do the right thing. Because I don't want another child to die," says Johnson.

We reached out to Fargo Public Schools about this story, but they declined an interview, but they did send this statement:

“Fargo Public Schools defines seclusion in Administrative Policy 6250 as the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving. The use of seclusion restraint is prohibited in the Fargo Public Schools. Fargo Public Schools do not have seclusion rooms; however, rooms are available for students to use for de-escalation purposes where a student is never alone without an adult present.

Furthermore, Administrative Policy 6250 defines a physical restraint can only be used when non-physical interventions would not be effective and the student exhibits dangerous behavior. Any physical restraint shall be limited to the use of such reasonable force as is necessary to protect a student or another member of the school community from assault or imminent danger of physical injury, or in the case that a student is engaging in a behavior that any reasonable person would anticipate that continuation of the behavior would lead to injury to the student themselves, or others.

Fargo Public Schools is committed to providing a safe learning environment that educates and empowers all students to succeed.”

This video is just one example of what happened to Johnson's son at Agassiz. She says he was restrained about a dozen times, and that she was only able to get the video after the district took her son to court. Ultimately, the state's attorney refused to prosecute the 9-year-old based on his age and disability. Now, Johnson is considering a complaint of her own against the school.

We also asked the Fargo Police Department for a comment on the video. They tell us there isn't much they can say in regards to what happened because it involves a child, but that the video doesn't show the whole picture.

"I think it's important for everybody to understand that there's a lot that happened outside of the view of the camera prior to the officers entering the room with the juvenile," says Jessica Schindeldecker, the Crime Prevention and Public Information Officer with the Fargo Police Department.

Fargo Police also say the incident was reviewed by the chain of command - including the chief - and they did not find any wrong doing by the officers.