The family of a special-education student tased earlier this month at Española Valley High School by a Rio Arriba County sheriff’s deputy is preparing to sue the sheriff’s office and the school district, calling the incident an “egregious” use of force.
The 15-year-old boy was detained by security staff and Deputy Jeremy Barnes, who is stationed at the high school, after being accused of participating in a drug deal on campus May 10. As security officers and Barnes questioned the boy, a scuffle erupted and Barnes tased the student in the chest at close range — and then administered two additional shocks as the boy lay on the ground — according to the deputy’s report and video provided by the sheriff’s office.
The incident has raised questions about the proper treatment of students with disabilities and whether law enforcement officers are appropriate to handle such investigations in schools.
It has attracted the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico — which issued a statement condemning the use of a Taser on a child, especially one with a “known disability” — as well as state Attorney General Hector Balderas, who called it “disturbing” in a statement and pledged to investigate.
Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Randy Sanches said an internal investigation of the incident is underway. “It is under review as far as our use-of-force policy.”
He said the student “does meet the criteria” for deploying a Taser because of “his behavior, his age, everything.”
Barnes remains on active duty as the investigation proceeds, Sanches added.
Barnes wrote in his report of the incident that the boy had been “verbally uncooperative” and would not allow security staff to search him.
Video from Barnes’ lapel camera shows the deputy entering the office of the dean of students, where several security employees were already assembled. Barnes is heard in the video responding to the boy’s refusal to be searched during an investigation into suspicions of drug activity.
“Oh, he’s refusing?” Barnes asks. “That’s fine, I’ll put his little ass in handcuffs and take him to Santa Fe.” He then orders the student to stand up.
“Are you going to be cooperative or uncooperative?” Barnes asks.
“What do you think I’m doing?” the boy answers.
Barnes then tells the boy to turn around, and the boy calls him a “faggot.”
The deputy and a security guard then appear to grab the boy, and a struggle ensues.
“I’m going to [expletive] tase you,” Barnes warns the boy.
A security guard can be heard in the video telling Barnes to tase the boy, and Barnes immediately fires his stun gun on the student.
The boy begins to scream and falls to the floor face down as Barnes yells, “Get on the ground,” and the security guard places his knee on the back of the boy’s neck.
Barnes shouts, “Comply right now. Stop resisting,” and handcuffs the boy, whose back is exposed because his shirt was nearly pulled off during the struggle.
“It hurts so much,” the boy says.
Emergency medical responders arrived and removed the Taser probes from the boy’s chest and took him to Presbyterian Española Hospital, where he and his parents declined a medical examination, according Barnes’ report. Juvenile probation officials were contacted about the incident but determined it did not warrant taking the boy into custody, the report said.
Barnes wrote in the report that when he was trying to restrain the boy after commanding him to stand up, the boy “pulled away with force” and then “with clenched fist pushed me away very forceful, causing me to lose balance due to a chair being behind me.”
The boy then hit a security guard with a closed fist, Barnes wrote. After “a clear verbal warning,” the boy was tased once, and then shocked two more times while he lay on the floor, the deputy added in the report.
In the boy’s pocket, Barnes found two vape pens, one suspected of containing liquid marijuana, he wrote. The boy was arrested on suspicion of resisting officers, battery on an officer, battery on a school employee and possession of drug paraphernalia.
County attorneys and the school district’s superintendent, Bobbie Gonzales, did not return calls for comment on the case.
The boy’s parents could not be reached for comment.
But his mother is shown later in Barnes’ video speaking with the deputy about her son.
“You guys all know that he has an IEP,” the mother said, referring to an Individualized Education Program, which is a legally binding federal document for each public school student who is eligible for special-education services; the document outlines the services, curriculum modifications and accommodations the district must provide for the student.
“And he’s mentally unstable, right?” the mother added.
“That has nothing to do with it,” Barnes said.
“Yes it does,” the mother replied. “It has everything to do with it because the way you approach him, with force — it’s in his IEP not to approach him that way.”
“I understand you as a concerned parent, OK?” Barnes said. “As a law enforcement officer, I have a job to do. And if he’s interfering on that, IEP aside, I have a job to do.”
On May 23, the family filed a tort claim notice, a predecessor to a lawsuit, against Rio Arriba County, the sheriff’s office, the school district and Española Valley High School alleging unreasonable seizure, negligent training of school employees and excessive use of force by the officer.
Laura Schauer Ives, a partner at an Albuquerque law firm the boy’s family retained after the incident, said the family also might pursue claims of violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The incident is an egregious abuse of authority,” Schauer Ives said Thursday. “No force, in the circumstances, would have been justified. The minor appeared to be complying with the deputy’s request.”
She called the deputy the aggressor in the incident and said he never should have used a Taser on a child.
“Everything that he could have done wrong, he did wrong,” Schauer Ives said.
ACLU of New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson said, “Certainly, the most alarming thing was simply the use of the Taser. A Taser is a potentially lethal option for force, and particularly when it’s misapplied in the way it apparently was in this case, it threatens to seriously injure or even kill someone.”
Simonson said Tasers should be used only when the safety of an officer or someone nearby is at risk. He argued the best approach would have been for the school to handle the disciplinary situation administratively rather than involving law enforcement.
“No professional police operation uses Tasers liberally to simply enforce compliance,” Simonson said. “This is the problem with having police in our schools in the first place.”
Attorney Gail Stewart, who represents children with disabilities throughout New Mexico, echoed Simonson’s thoughts, saying, “Law enforcement is never a good solution for a school district.”
Generally speaking, she said, a student’s refusal or inability to comply with an officer’s order can result from many factors, such as a developmental disability or history of abuse.
“There’s many, many reasons that people cannot comply when they’re expected to,” Stewart said, adding that law enforcement officers are typically unaware of a student’s disability.
The Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office probe of the incident will “look at everything,” said Sanches, the agency’s spokesman, including the short amount of time between the deputy’s warning and the firing of the Taser, and the initial strike to the boy’s chest, which is considered an especially dangerous location to hit a person with Taser probes.
Barnes has worked for three New Mexico law enforcement agencies since 2012, Sanches said, and has been with the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office for less than a year with no prior disciplinary history.