The video from former Statesville Police Officer Michael Fattaleh’s body camera shows him rushing across a classroom toward two women who are sitting with a small boy.
“OK, I’ve got him. He’s mine now,” Fattaleh says. He takes the 7-year-old, child with autism from the women, handcuffs the boy’s arms behind his back and presses him to the floor.
According to the video of the Sept. 11, 2018, incident, the student remains in that position for the next 38 minutes. Sometimes he sits quietly. Other times he sobs in apparent pain or pleads for Fattaleh to let him go.
The boy’s crime? According to a new lawsuit filed by the child’s mother, identified as A.G., Fattaleh says he saw the student with special needs spitting in a “quiet room” at the Pressly Alternative School in Statesville.“I’ve got all day, dude,” the officer says early in the encounter. ” … If you are not acquainted with the juvenile justice system, you will be shortly.”
The officer repeatedly pledged to charge the boy with assault later that day, telling the boy’s mother the child had become combative, punching and kicking, behavior that is not apparent during the video. It remains unclear whether the charges were ever filed.
According to Charlotte attorney Alex Heroy, who is representing the boy’s mother, Fattaleh inappropriately injected himself into a situation without being summoned by the boy’s teachers, then used physical force that caused the child at times to scream out in pain.
“It’s one of the worst videos I’ve ever seen,” Heroy told the Observer.
“A school resource officer at a school for special needs students handcuffs and pins a 7-year-old boy to the ground for almost 40 minutes? There is never a need for that, particularly since there was never a threat of harm to anyone. The reported act was that the child spit on the floor. That should never justify this kind of a response to a kid, to a child.”
The mother’s lawsuit against Fattaleh, the city of Statesville and the Iredell-Statesville Board of Education was filed last week in federal court in Charlotte.
It accuses the defendants of constitutional violations, negligence, reckless and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and assault and battery.
Fattaleh was put on administrative leave shortly after the incident and later resigned from the Statesville Police Department. His attorney, Ashley Cannon of Statesville, told the Observer that the State Bureau of Investigation conducted an independent probe of the incident, resulting in no criminal charges.
City Attorney J.D. McAllister said much the same in an email, adding: “The Statesville Police Department stresses its commitment to serving the community and our schools and will continue to build trust with the students, parents and staff.”
The lawsuit adds a new chapter to the country’s expanding debate over excessive police force, in this case an officer’s physical response to a 4-foot-6, 80-pound boy.
Across the country, police tactics in cases involving adults and young people experiencing emotional crises also have come under increasing scrutiny.
Last month, Salt Lake City police shot and seriously wounded a 13-year-old boy with autism who was running away from them. The officer said the boy, who was experiencing an emotional crisis, made threats involving a weapon. There was no indication the boy was armed, according to The Washington Post.
“He’s a small child,” the boy’s mother told a local TV station. “Why didn’t you just tackle him? He’s a baby. He has mental issues.”
Iredell County Superior Court Judge Joseph Crosswhite ordered the video released at the request of WSOC-TV reporter Mark Becker, despite the objections of attorneys for the city and the officer. The judge did order that the boy’s face be hidden and his voice distorted.
The footage shows in sometimes disturbing detail Fattaleh’s interactions with the boy, identified in the lawsuit by the initials L.G.
The child first entered Pressly Alternative that year. According to the lawsuit, the school was aware he struggled with changes in location or activities, had difficulty regulating his emotions and experienced deep anxiety. Sometimes he could be physically or verbally aggressive, according to the lawsuit.
That day, the boy had grown agitated by the comings and goings of several students in his class. In response, the boy’s special education teacher and behavioral health specialist cleared the classroom and took L.G. to a safe room to quiet down. It was there that the alleged spitting incident occurred.
According to the suit, Fatalleh violated school policy by approaching the child without being asked to intervene by the child’s teachers, who never interceded from that point forward.
Sometimes the officer was solicitous of the boy, asking him on several occasions whether he was OK, patting his back, and getting him a pillow where he could rest his head. Other times, Fattaleh’s tone turned taunting.
“Have you ever heard the term ‘babysitter’?” the officer said while his knees were pressed into the boy’s back forcing him to the floor. “I take that term literally, my friend.”
In another exchange, Fattaleh asks the boy whether he’s ever been charged with a crime.
“No,” L.G. responds.
“Well, you’re fixin’ to,” the officer says.
In another instance cited by the lawsuit that is not clear in the redacted version of the video, the boy cries out in pain when Fattaleh twists his body.
“My knee. My knee. It really hurts,” the boy shouts out, according to the suit.
Fattaleh responds, “Yeah, it sucks, doesn’t it?”
Another officer at the school eventually removes the handcuffs after the boy’s mother arrives. Fattaleh tells the mother that her son will be charged with one or two counts of assault — for spitting, kicking and hitting.
“Was this necessary?” the mother said while hugging her son. “How do you charge a special needs child with assault?”
According to the lawsuit, the boy suffered psychological damage from the incident and has been home-schooled since.
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