PALMER — An 11-year-old special needs student at Wasilla’s Tanaina Elementary was pepper-sprayed by an Alaska State Trooper during an outburst at the school last week.
Troopers say the boy was in a classroom when he threatened to kill them with a pen and could not be calmed by others, including his parents. That’s what prompted the “rare” decision during the April 1 incident to use force in a school, a troopers spokesman said.
The boy is on the autism spectrum, according to his parents, Mindy and Ben Petal. The afternoon of April 1, he was having a meltdown: an intense response to an overwhelming situation.
Normally her son is sweet, inquisitive, naive and sometimes silly, and he poses no risk to anybody, his mother said this week. That day, he was terrified and in sensory overload, cornered in a classroom by adults shouting instructions and threatening to restrain him or give him a shot.
“His threats with the pen came from a place of fear and uncertainty,” Mindy Petal said. “He was put in a situation that was handled so poorly by adults he was expecting to trust.”
A special education advocate says incidents like this point to the need for better training in de-escalation tactics, especially when a young person involved has autism.
“There are lots of ways of handling these cases,” said Marie Lewis, clinical director of the Pennsylvania-based National Special Education Advocacy Institute. “We don’t have to get these kids where we injure them. We just don’t.”
Troopers spokesman Austin McDaniel said efforts took place to resolve the situation before the trooper opted to use pepper spray.
“School officials, EMS personnel, law enforcement, and the student’s parents all made repeated attempts to peacefully resolve the situation,” McDaniel wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, all of the attempts to deescalate the situation were not successful, and the student was becoming more agitated as the situation continued.”
The incident began after the trooper responded to a report of a student leaving school grounds.
His parents came to the school after the principal called to say their son had walked out. His father was on foot. His mother was in their car.
A Wasilla police officer was also present during the incident after troopers requested a second unit, according to a Wasilla Police Department spokeswoman.
The student was outside walking toward the school and refused to stop when the trooper told him to, according to an online report posted Monday.
It was the police response that ramped up their son’s emotional level, the Petals said. He had stopped moving and was interacting with them before he saw the trooper pull up and issue commands. That’s when the boy started running.
He ran back into the school and into his special needs classroom, his parents said.
Mindy Petal said she was relieved at that point, because that was right where he needed to be. She followed her son inside. The trooper followed her into the school. Her husband came in a few minutes later.
“I told the trooper first thing, I said, ‘My son is diagnosed with autism and ADHD,’ ” Mindy Petal said. “Knowing my husband and I were there, I do not understand why that trooper decided to follow us.”
She said she also told the trooper her son, diagnosed four or five months ago, was on a new medication.
At some point before the classroom incident happened, the trooper — who has not been identified — decided to require involuntary commitment of the boy for treatment at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center through what’s called a Title 47 hold.
That decision was made based on the boy’s actions after the trooper and police officer arrived, but also due to reports that he was having some issues at school earlier in the day, McDaniel said. He called the hold “the most appropriate outcome for everyone involved given the totality of the circumstances.”
The Petals, however, say the trooper’s decision to order a hold escalated their son’s reaction because he knew he faced being either strapped to a gurney or given a shot and sedated.
The boy was standing next to the teacher’s desk in a corner across the room from the door, his parents said.
He kept repeating the same things, Mindy Petal said: He wasn’t leaving, and he was staying in school to finish the day and “have his fun Friday” — free time with friends he’d earned as a reward for good behavior.
His son asked if his parents could take him to the hospital instead of an ambulance, Ben Petal said: “I remember telling him we don’t have that option.”
His mother said it was after the boy realized he’d need a shot if he didn’t get on an ambulance gurney that he escalated, grabbing the pen and yelling, “They’re not going to give me a shot!”
The couple said they had just a few minutes in the room before the trooper, officer and an EMT re-entered after they heard the boy’s voice get loud.
“He was scared and cornered. He never, ever lunged, he never made any advancement toward anybody,” Mindy Petal said. “We were not given any time. We needed time. My son needed time.”
‘Is my skin burning off?’
Once inside the classroom, the trooper and police officer told the Petals to step back and not get between them and their son, they said.
“Then the two officers began closing in on my son as if he was an adult criminal,” Mindy Petal said.
The troopers’ report described what happened next this way: “Fearing for the safety of the individuals in the room, as well as to peacefully resolve the situation as safely as possible, Troopers deployed a short burst of (pepper spray) into the room to gain the compliance of the student.”
McDaniel this week said the trooper sprayed the boy from 5 to 6 feet away.
The boy’s parents say it looked more like 2 feet at the most, and the spray didn’t go “into the room” but directly into the boy’s face while his eyes and mouth were open.
Mindy Petal said there was no warning of the spray before her son was hit at point-blank range.
“Did you just pepper spray my son?” she recalled yelling. “I was screaming. I just couldn’t believe it.”
The use of force against anyone, especially a juvenile, is “never the intended outcome from an interaction with an Alaska State Trooper,” McDaniel said.
The student was making direct threats to the trooper and officer and to his parents, he said. “The student was becoming more agitated and physically aggressive as the incident continued.”
Once the spray hit him, the boy was in agony, his mother said, and said he couldn’t breathe. Troopers say he complied immediately.
The trooper and officer handcuffed his son over the desk as he cried in shock and pain, Ben Petal said. A medic tried to give him a sedative but the boy inadvertently knocked the needle out of their hands.
The trooper and officer walked the boy out to an ambulance with his hands cuffed behind his back, he said. One of his shoes had come off in the struggle. The chemical burned his face, ears, neck, chest and abdomen.
Mindy Petal got in the ambulance with her son after he agreed to get strapped on the gurney so he didn’t have to get a shot. He asked her if he was dreaming, she said. “ ‘My face is burning. Is my skin burning off?’ ”
The Alaska Department of Public Safety is reviewing the use of pepper spray to make sure it complies with Alaska law and department policy, McDaniel said. That’s standard policy for any use of force incident.
All troopers receive a “significant amount of de-escalation and mental health response training during the Alaska Law Enforcement Training Academy as well as through ongoing in-service training and other advanced training,” McDaniel said.
The boy was suspended from school this week. His parents are working with district officials to get him back in class safely, they said. He wants to finish fifth grade with his friends.
A Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District spokeswoman declined to comment on the incident.
Generally, the district’s response to a student leaving school grounds will depend on the situation, spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey said Friday.
About 14%, or more than 2,600, of the roughly 19,000 students in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District make use of a range of special education services, Morrissey said.
Staff and administration use multiple techniques for de-escalation, including the Mandt System, she said. The program bills itself as using “evidence-based techniques for conflict resolution and de-escalation to help prevent violence in the workplace,” according to its website.
The student has an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, on file at Tanaina that includes guidelines for de-escalation if necessary. It notes that the boy “takes about 15 minutes to relax after he’s escalated,” Ben Petal said, reading from the document. It also states that he may be required to use a de-escalation room if he becomes a danger to himself or others.
Rather than crowding in and resorting to violent measures, said Lewis, the national special needs student advocate, authorities at Tanaina last week should have cleared everybody out of the room and talked him down.
“You have to think of these kids as profoundly dysregulated. They’re dysregulated at that point,” she said. “They just need to be calmed down and the staff has to be trained. That’s part of the IEP.”
His parents say the school didn’t notify them their son was having issues that morning until the principal called that afternoon. Their son was in the principal’s office. He left the school during the phone call.
The principal said she had removed their son from a classroom over a vague threat, they said. When she asked him about it later, the threat proved to be harmless, a common misunderstanding with autistic people who tend to use “provocative language,” advocates say.
Now Ben and Mindy Petal say they don’t want other families to suffer the kind of trauma they endured.
They say their son is scared to sleep because he thinks about the incident when his mind goes quiet, has anxiety around groups of people and is expected to suffer permanent trauma from being pepper-sprayed by a law enforcement officer — the kind of authority figure he once trusted.
His parents say authorities need better training to handle special needs students, especially children with autism.
“That’s a very important part of this story. You’re not dealing with a neurotypical child. They had plenty of notification,” Mindy Petal said. “Our child is not walking away from this unscathed.”