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Lawsuit: 12-Year-Old American School for the Deaf Student Tasered by West Hartford Police [Updated]

Suit seeks damages from ASD, staff members, town and police for alleged abuse and Taser incident.

Photo credit: Ted Glanzer
Photo credit: Ted Glanzer

Update: The following statement has been released by the American School for the Deaf regarding the April 30 incident:

The health and safety of our students and staff is always our number one priority. Regarding the incident, we acted appropriately according to our policies and the laws set forth by the state. When it was determined that the student’s behavior posed a threat to himself and others, the West Hartford Police were called. Once the police arrived, they took control of the situation. Our staff remained in the area to provide appropriate support to the student.

Original story: West Hartford police used a Taser to subdue a 12-year-old deaf boy at the American School for the Deaf in April, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court recently.

The suit, filed against the ASD, two West Hartford police officers, the town and two ASD staffers in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport on Sept. 11, also alleges that ASD staff abused the boy in a separate incident and subsequently retaliated against him to have him withdraw from the school.

The boy  - identified as A.M. in court documents - is from the Bronx, N.Y.  is profoundly deaf and has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, the suit states. According to the suit, he was forcibly thrown to the ground by school staff in March 2013, resulting in “significant head injuries” in addition to frightening the boy.

The suit alleges that on April 30, A.M. was denied a request for food when ASD staff members were taking orders. When A.M. attempted to contact his parents through a videophone, ASD staff member Chris Hammond “pulled the wires out of the videophone and disconnected the call.”

A.M., upset that he could not speak to his parents, fled to a nearby construction site on campus, pursued by Hammond and two other ASD staff members, the suit alleges.

Hammond allegedly punched A.M. in the face and A.M. grabbed a stick to defend himself, the complaint says.

West Hartford police were called to the scene, and officers Paul Gionfriddo and Christopher Lyth responded, according to the complaint.

Gionfriddo used a Taser on A.M., who was “sitting calmly with his back facing Officer Gionfriddo,” the suit says. One prong of the Taser hit A.M. on the mid-back, while another hit him on his buttocks “causing burns, paralysis and pain throughout his body as he hit the ground and the police rushed him and forcibly handcuffed him.” A.M. was taken to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford.

In June 2013, ASD retaliated against A.M. by accusing him of watching and printing pornography, according to the suit.

“ASD then contacted police falsely claiming that A.M. was trying to kill himself by wrapping wires around his neck as well as stabbing himself with a pen and scissors,” the suit alleges. Hospital medical staff told A.M.’s father that there was no physical evidence or other evidence that A.M. attempted to commit suicide or had suicidal ideations, the suit states.

On June 26, an ASD staff member told A.M.’s parents that they could take A.M. out of school or agree to never contact A.M. or ASD staff when A.M. was enrolled at school, according to the complaint.

The complaint, filed by A.M. and his parents, is seeking damages against the school, the town, the police officers and the two ASD staff members for various causes of action.

Attorney Eric Baum, who represents A.M. and his parents, said in a telephone interview that it “shocks the conscience” that a deaf, 12-year-old boy was Tasered.

“No young child should be subjected to the traumatic experience of being Tasered,” said Baum, adding that he believed that the West Hartford police department does not have any formal policy on dealing with deaf children in emergency situations, even though the ASD is located in West Hartford. “This is simply unacceptable.”

Baum went on to say that the school’s alleged physical and psychological abuse was “horrific.”

“No child in a school’s care should be beaten [or] tormented,” he said. “What happened to my client is every parent’s worst nightmare.”

Efforts to reach the West Hartford police department were not initially successful. But the police incident report, which was attached as an exhibit to the complaint, paints a different picture concerning the April 30 incident.

A.M., according to the report written by Gionfriddo, “had attacked staff with a chair, a stick, attempted to bite staff and threw rocks at staff.

“[A.M.] was now holding a large rock that he refused to put down. … I advised staff to communicate with [A.M.] via sign language to cooperate and drop the rock. A.M. was asked two times to comply and drop the rock and he refused.”

Gionfriddo said that, based on the totality of the circumstances, including A.M.’s prior violent behavior, he deployed the Taser, striking A.M. in the back.

A.M., according to Gionfriddo’s report, is about 5’6” and weighs 140 pounds.

In speaking with Hammond, Gionfriddo wrote that A.M. became upset because he was not permitted to order more than one cookie from McDonald’s when staff was collecting orders.

“[A.M.] became angry while he was near the video phone and began to wrap the wires around his neck,” the police report states.

A staff member removed the wires, but A.M. grabbed a chair and a stick and ran from the building. The three ASD staff members ran after A.M. to the construction site, where A.M. hit Hammond with the stick repeatedly and with thrown stones, the report states.

“Hammond sustained numerous defensive wounds to the arms and hands from being hit with the stick,” the police report states. He was also struck by three rocks on his torso.

Marilyn Rettig, director of institutional advancement for the American School for the Deaf, declined, for her part, to comment directly on the lawsuit.

“We are cooperating with the local authorities,” she said. “The health and safety of our students is our No. 1 priority. … This is under investigation and we are cooperating with the authorities.”

Rettig said that the school will likely issue a statement at some point concerning the suit.

The lawsuit was filed at an interesting time, as the ASD is unveiling to members of the media on Tuesday a new $20 million, 62,000-square-foot  building called the Gallaudet-Clerc Education Center.
Jlov76 September 17, 2013 at 09:20 AM
Very sad on many fronts. These are difficult and touchy situations that parents and teachers of special needs children deal with every day.
Angela Platt July 18, 2014 at 11:48 AM
I would really like to talk with the lawyer, for my child has been treated unprofessional and inappropriate as well at the same school.

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