School, police respond to criticism of incident

A Franklin father is criticizing how police and school officials responded to an incident earlier this school year that led to his autistic son being arrested.

On Aug. 30, Franklin police officers were called to Needham Elementary School just after 12:30 p.m. on a report of a fight at recess. At the time, police said two fourth-graders had gotten into a fight, and a teacher trying to break up the fight had been attacked. Police officers were called by the school because a student had done criminal mischief to the building and battered a student and two teachers.

Under departmental policy, the student had to be arrested, Franklin Police Chief Tim O’Sullivan said.

Since then, Ronnie Shepperd, the boy’s father, said he has been working with school officials to try to address issues he said led up to the incident, including his son being bullied. But he felt that school officials have not taken his concerns seriously and he was fed up, and decided to post to social media a video of his son being arrested, handcuffed and led to a Franklin police car.

Shepperd said he posted the video to raise awareness about his concerns with how special needs students are being treated in school.

“It takes somebody to do it, and nobody wants to do it because of the negativity,” he said.

“I want to raise awareness, make sure kids have the education they deserve, and don’t want to quit school. I want schools to step up and help these kids get through the school; that is all I want to get out of this.”

Both the Franklin Police Department and Franklin Community Schools released statements responding to the video and criticism of how the incident was handled.

“Officers involved on this call followed both department and juvenile arrest protocol. The Franklin Police Department stands behind these officers and the decisions that were made on this day,” the statement from Franklin police said.

School officials also released a statement about the incident, saying Needham Elementary School staff handled the situation calmly and with compassion. Anytime an incident happens at school, officials do a review to be sure all procedures are being followed and that student and staff safety are a primary focus, the statement said. School officials also pointed to training for nearly 300 parents and volunteers on safety, including bullying prevention as an example of the school district’s proactive approach to handling issues that arise at school, the statement said.

“Our schools exist to provide students with a quality education in a safe learning environment,” Superintendent David Clendening said in the statement. “Anytime a situation occurs in a school that escalates to the point that outside resources are required, it is a sad day for all.”

Shepperd said his son has autism and sees a therapist weekly who works with him on behavioral issues, including how to react to situations and how to control himself and better communicate, he said.

His son had issues with the other student at school before, including just a few days earlier, Shepperd said. He described the situation as bullying and said his son decided to stand up for himself, something he has taught all his children to do. Shepperd said his son had brought up his concerns about the other student to the school, and nothing was done.

“I am proud of him for doing that; I’ve always taught my kids to stand up for themselves,” Shepperd said.

Clendening said he could not comment on a specific student or situation due to federal privacy laws. But whenever a concern is raised about an issue at a school, principals do due diligence to look into what is reported, Clendening said.

Because of his son having autism, he reacts to situations differently, Shepperd said. He went into defense mode, and when the teacher intervened, he struck her, not realizing what he was doing. His son apologized to the teacher, Shepperd said.

Since the incident, his son has been at school at the Earlywood Education Center, for students with special needs, and the prosecutor decided not to file any charges as long as he does not get into any more trouble, Shepperd said.

His son is traumatized by what happened, including being taken away in handcuffs, Shepperd said. That also was a concern to him and the reason why he began recording the incident with his cellphone camera, Shepperd said.

“He was frightened, he cried, he was not sure what to expect, and unsure why he was being arrested and taken away,” Shepperd said.

Under department policy, the student had to be handcuffed to be arrested and taken to the Johnson County Juvenile Detention Center, O’Sullivan said.

The incident was handled professionally by the officers called to the school that day, followed departmental procedure and protocols and was done exactly right, he said.

Shepperd said he has also tried to talk with the school about his concerns over bullying issues and how special needs students are treated but does not feel his concerns are being taken seriously. And he worries about how other children with special needs are being treated, which was why he posted the video, he said.

“If not for bullying and how special needs kids are treated, that’s why we are here,” he said.

Clendening said school officials want to make sure all students are safe and have a great learning experience and learning environment.

“Safety for all kids is a primary concern for us,” Clendening said.

“When things happen at school that disrupt that learning environment, the building principal has to quickly make decisions to bring the environment back to normal.”

Since posting the video Friday, Shepperd said he has gotten multiple calls from reporters and parents all around the globe who have seen it, he said. He wasn’t seeking attention, he said, but did want to stand up for and be there for his kids.

Because the incident involves a juvenile, police cannot give out all the details of what happened that day and therefore cannot respond to all of the criticism, which has included blanket statements from people online about how they would have responded to police had that been their child, O’Sullivan said.

The negative responses are upsetting and concerning for officers, especially those involved, he said.

“Every officer truly loves this community and our job, and we are doing it for the right reason,” O’Sullivan said.

“We are all professionals and will handle it, and will move forward.”

Author photo
Annie Goeller is managing editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at agoeller@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2718.