A 10-year-old boy with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was already spiraling when sheriff’s deputies arrived at his Louisiana elementary school in May of 2021. He had hit his principal, stormed out of school, and chucked a trash can through a window.
Responding to a series of 911 calls, Jefferson Parish sheriff's deputies spotted the student around lunchtime as he was leaving Congetta Trippe Janet Elementary School in Marrero, just outside New Orleans, according to a lawsuit filed this week.
None of them spoke to the boy or to school administrators, the suit states. Instead, Sergeant Steven Trapani allegedly grabbed the boy’s arm and pulled it behind his back. When the 10-year-old yanked it from his grasp, Trapani put him in a chokehold, the lawsuit alleges. Then - maintaining the chokehold - the sergeant dragged the 93-pound fifth-grader across the ground, the suit says.
The boy, identified only as J.H., feared he was about to die, according to court documents.
J.H.'s parents filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court against the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office and the Jefferson Parish School Board. Represented by lawyers from the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union and the Tulane Law Clinic, the parents are seeking an unspecified amount of money in damages and asking a judge to bar school officials and law enforcement officers from using physical restraints against students.
J.H. had previously been diagnosed with ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and other disabilities that “make it significantly more difficult for him to manage his response to frustration; to control his anger; to express his emotions, wants, and needs; and to adjust to social and physical transitions,” according to the lawsuit. His parents, Ashley Hutchinson-Harper and Terry Harper, allege that school officials and sheriff’s deputies discriminated against their son based on his disabilities and intentionally caused him emotional distress.
Jefferson Parish Schools, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office and Trapani did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. A message sent to Principal Karen Doyle's work email bounced back with an alert that "the address couldn't be found, or is unable to receive mail."
Officials with the school board and sheriff's office told the Associated Press they could not comment on pending litigation.
By the spring of 2021, J.H. was already receiving specialized instruction, according to the lawsuit. To escape the torment of bullies, he regularly ate lunch in the administration office, the lawsuit says.
But on May 13, a classmate had already harassed and taunted him by the time he arrived at the principal’s office where, still angry and distraught, he refused to eat, court records state. Doyle and other administrators allegedly told him he would go hungry if he didn’t. When J.H. responded by throwing a ball of yarn, hand sanitizer, and a tissue box, Doyle threatened to call the boy’s mother if he didn’t “shape up,” the lawsuit states.
J.H. hit the principal from behind, causing the first of four 911 calls made over the span of about 13 minutes, the suit alleges. During those, callers incorrectly told dispatchers that Doyle had been hit in the jaw, fell to the ground and needed medical attention, according to the complaint.
By the time deputies responded, J.H. was walking away from the school, crying and non-communicative, the lawsuit states. He “did not pose a threat to himself or others,” it adds.
"J.H. had tears streaming down his face and a blank stare," the complaint says. "J.H. was clearly scared and upset."
Once they took him back to the principal's office, deputies allegedly forced J.H. to sit on the floor "with his hands cuffed painfully tight behind his back" while questioning him for an hour and a half. Meanwhile, school administrators refused to let his mother and grandparents see him, J.H.'s parents allege in their lawsuit.
He was “scared, terrified, confused, crying, and wanted his parents,” the complaint states.
Then, the deputies allegedly put J.H. in the back of a patrol car and drove him to the Jefferson Parish Juvenile Assessment Center, where they shackled his legs. He was charged with multiple crimes, all of which were ultimately dismissed.
In their lawsuit, J.H.'s parents allege the school district and sheriff's office violated their son's civil rights and the Americans With Disabilities Act, among other laws. They are asking a judge to grant an injunction barring the school and sheriff's office from using physical restraints on students "whose behaviors are a manifestation of their disabilities, and to compel defendants to revise their policies, practices, and training accordingly."
The trauma of that day scarred J.H., his parents allege. He is more anxious and gets "extremely fearful" whenever he sees officers. In the lawsuit, his parents gave an example: A couple of months after the incident, he was playing basketball in his driveway when two police cars drove by.
He “ran inside in terror.”