It was Aug. 27, the third day of remote-learning at Colorado Springs’ Grand Mountain School and Isaiah Elliott was in art class. At first, it was the same computer screen experience many kids and parents have come to know in the pandemic times — then things went awry.
What happened next is a bit murky because accounts vary and the video recording only captured a slice of interaction. The 12-year-old’s art teacher said she saw him showing what she thought was a toy gun on screen.
At the time, she said she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t real and the incident was reported to the school’s vice-principal. A report of a possible gun in class — albeit in a remote learning context — set in motion a chain of events that ended in a school suspension and a home visit from two school resource officers, who are in this case, armed El Paso County Sheriff’s deputies.
Isaiah’s parents, Curtis and Danielle Elliott, were frightened by what happened after the report. First, because they are an African American family living in a “cultural climate of racial divide and police brutality,” as Danielle put it, and out of concern for the welfare of their son as they balance working and the new realities of distance learning for their child.
Danielle believes her son knows that having a toy gun whose shape looks similar to a real one at his brick and mortar school would be a serious issue.
“However,” she said in an interview with Colorado Matters, “I am almost in my 30s and I didn’t even realize that having a toy gun in the home would ever even come to something as insane as that. So for me to expect a 12-year-old child who’s adapting to this learning environment for him to know better than to do something like that, you know, to me was just, it’s insane.”
There is recorded body camera footage from the officers and the El Paso Sheriff did attempt to clarify things on social media to allay the parent’s concerns when the incident went viral. They also deferred any additional comment to the district. When contacted for comment the district sent a written statement to CPR News.
“Our policies and practices have been developed around in-person learning,” said the statement provided to Colorado Public Radio. “However, we are currently reviewing those for appropriate application to distance learning. We like many school districts have been faced with several challenges in such a short period of time that we have been reacting. Instead of reflecting, we realize that we are living and educating in a different world. We cannot comment on the specific incident due to privacy laws. We regret the inadvertent fear caused for the family and we empathize with them.”
Stress Of A Police Encounter
Before law enforcement became involved, Danielle said she got an email from the teacher “stating that [Isaiah] had been extremely distracted during class and that he was playing with what she said … she assumed to be a toy gun.” Danielle wrote back to say “that it was in fact just a toy gun and that I would talk with Isaiah about his disruptive behavior.”
Danielle pointed out that her child has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a diagnosis the school is aware of. And this art teacher knows Isaiah well because she taught him the previous year. Roughly four hours after she received the first email alert, she said she “received a call from the vice principal stating that the police were on route to my home.”
At work and terrified, she called her husband, Curtis, who happened to be out on an errand at the time. She told him what had happened and asked him to go straight home.
“After that,” Danielle said, “I immediately called my son to tell him to lock the doors, not open the door. The police were en route. Stay away from the windows. Put his toy gun away and go downstairs in the basement until his father got home.”
The death of Tamir Rice was Danielle’s “very first thought.” Twelve-year-old Rice was shot and killed by a white police officer in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014. He had been holding a toy gun.
“Anytime an officer is dispatched to a possible gun situation, they don’t get the full story or the full picture,” she said. “They just hear ‘young armed African American possible troublemaker.’ And my son looks a lot older than 12.”
Curtis Elliott was frightened too and rushed home when he heard what was happening.
“And my initial thought,” he said, “was also of fear thinking that the police were going to storm in, thinking my son had a real gun.”
He hoped to calm the situation by alerting police dispatch to avoid an overreaction if they beat him home. Curtis was there however when the officers arrived and explained they were there to ensure Isaiah didn’t have a real gun.
“They briefly explained to Isaiah the importance of not getting distracted while learning and that a toy gun wasn’t appropriate during the online class environment,” Curtis said
But Danielle has trouble with this part. She was listening on speakerphone throughout the encounter.
“They had these conversations about not getting distracted and threatening to press charges,” she said, “all before even verifying whether or not it was a toy gun, which further leads me to believe that they knew it was a toy prior to even arriving.”
Officials Say Safety Was The Focus
In the released body camera footage, before the home visit, Grand Mountain Vice-Principal Keri Lindaman said to the officers, “I’d just keep trying to emphasize the safety of the situation.”
But Danielle said she thinks if the school was truly interested in Isaiah’s safety, the family’s safety, or even the officers’ own safety, they would have tried to establish in the first few minutes of the home visit whether the gun had been a real one or not.
Lindaman is also seen telling the officers in advance of the home visit that she had been instructed by the school district “that a 5-day suspension seemed appropriate” as punishment for Isaiah. Danielle pointed out that the school’s policy for bringing a real weapon to school is immediate expulsion. So she thinks this shows the school knew before coming to her house that the gun had been a toy.
If the school had been afraid for Isaiah’s safety, she said “they would have called me immediately. I believe they would not have procrastinated and had these cops arrive four and a half hours later.”
Body camera footage records one deputy telling the vice principal that it appeared there were no criminal actions committed that would lead to pressing criminal charges.
“However,” Danielle said, “when they arrived at my home, they said on multiple occasions to my son, that they could press charges for interference with an educational institution. And that if anything similar like this were to ever occur in the future, he would be facing charges.”
Curtis was concerned by this too as he listened to the officers speak with his son.
“In my head the whole time, I’m thinking that my son’s either going to go to jail or have criminal charges pressed against him,” he said. “So my goal at that point was just to comply, show them that it was a toy, and get them out of there in fear for my child and for myself.”
The Elliotts were frustrated by what they said was the lack of guidance as the school moved to online learning, especially since their son has special needs. They felt equally uninformed about what school discipline would look like during e-learning. And it never occurred to Danielle that “something as innocent as a child playing with a toy in the privacy of his own home” could lead to an officer showing up at her door.