Bodycam video of police interaction with 5-year-old shows 'every adult in this situation failed this child'
(CNN) -- A Maryland police department is under a spotlight after body camera video was released showing officers locate a 5-year-old boy who fled school, return him to the building and scream in his face, berate him and encourage his mother to physically abuse him.
The officers are heard in the footage talking casually about crating the boy like a "beast," denying him a nap as punishment for bad behavior, calling him a "violent little thing," handcuffing him, and suggesting he should be hit with a keyboard hard enough for keys to lodge into his backside because the boy was alleged to have broken a computer at school.
The 51-minute video was released Friday by authorities in Montgomery County, Maryland, after the boy's mother filed a lawsuit in January against the officers and the board of education that oversees the district. The footage, which is on the Montgomery County Police Department's YouTube page, had been viewed more than 266,000 times as of Wednesday afternoon.
The incident occurred in January 2020, when a school staff member asked police to help with "a five-year-old child who had left the school grounds and did not wish to return," according to a statement released by police alongside the video. Police found the boy about one-fifth of a mile away.
Law enforcement and child development experts expressed disappointment and shock upon viewing the video and noted problems with the way the situation was handled.
"Every adult in this situation failed this child," Will Jawando, a county councilmember, told CNN. "The systems that were set up to support him. School system, supposed to be a place of learning, of support, of love, of care. Those administrators failed. Police, supposed to protect and serve. They failed him."
Attorneys for the family said they knew about the handcuffing, which happened in front of the boy's mother after she arrived at the school. But other disturbing comments were made before she arrived and her attorneys say they didn't realize the extent of the boy's treatment until they saw the video.
"When we got the video, to our considerable shock and surprise, the handcuffing wasn't the most egregious thing done that day. We thought the 45-minute onslaught about beating this child and horrible intense screams were more shocking than handcuffs," said attorney James Papirmeister.
Toward the end of the ordeal, during which the boy is with officers and school staff who don't intervene or discourage the conversation, an officer tells him his mother will "take care" of him.
"Mom's gonna take you home and fix that for you, OK? Don't worry about it, she's gonna take care of it for you," he said, before patting the boy on the stomach and pausing a beat, and continuing, "She'll beat that butt. Cause you don't know how to behave."
The boy appears in fear for much of the video. He seems to flinch at an outburst from an officer and spends much of the interaction with his back to the officers and his face pressed against a chair while adults talk about beating him, his behavior, how to remove him from the school, and the type of discipline he gets at home.
"Nobody was in their rightful role," said Andria Goss, director of a child welfare project between Illinois' Department of Children and Family Services and the Erikson Institute, a school for professionals working in early childhood development.
"(The police) had power in the room. It's clear everyone looked to them," Goss said. "In that moment, whether teacher recognized or not, she abdicated her power... the little baby didn't have no power; he had nothing. That was absolutely deplorable."
'As if his emotions did not matter'
Montgomery County police and Montgomery County School District officials have not answered basic questions from CNN about the incident. Attorneys for the boy's mother "completely" and "categorically" denied there was any problem or abuse happening in the boy's home.
The officers, identified in the lawsuit as Kevin Christmon and Dionne Holliday, were disciplined, according to their union. Neither officer responded to a request for comment. A union official said there was "corrective action" taken but cited state law preventing him from elaborating.
Lee Holland, vice president for the union representing the officers, said although officers violated no specific policies, there are certain "courtesy violations" that function as catch-all rules based upon how appropriate the police chief feels their demeanor or actions were.
"Under the rules of the police department, you have abuse of authority, conduct unbecoming... That's how officers are disciplined under those rules rather than policy violations," Holland said.
The body-camera footage appears to be from Christmon's camera. Holliday appears to be wearing a camera, but the county didn't release other body-camera or surveillance footage from the incident. In a statement, the Montgomery County police department said officials conducted and completed an internal investigation but refused to say whether Christmon or Holliday had been disciplined. Both are still employed by the department.
CNN contacted every school board member, and none responded to a request for comment.
"Our heart aches for this student. There is no excuse for adults to ever speak to or threaten a child in this way," according to a statement from the district. "We have asked MCPS leadership to ensure that the school system's procedures and expectations are clear to all staff."
The school district would not name the school officials present, one of whom appears to have shot video of the boy's temper tantrum and shown it to police. A school spokesperson wouldn't comment on whether the district has a policy that pertains to staff recording and sharing videos of students.
A school spokeswoman also wouldn't say whether the district asked police to redact identities of school officials from the video released by police, which only shows the faces of the two officers and the boy's mother. A county spokesperson didn't answer a request for comment on the redaction.
At one point, a school official tells the boy's mother that they're only required to report abuse depending on the language she uses to describe it. A spokesperson wouldn't say whether any school administrator has been disciplined for any conduct seen in the video and said there's an ongoing internal investigation.
It's not clear whether any school official present took issue with the boy's treatment by police, and a spokesperson for the school district said she's not aware of any contemporaneous notes taken by school staff. That spokesperson wouldn't say whether any school official reported any of the conversations to state social service agencies under the state's mandatory reporter law, which requires certain professionals with frequent contact with children to report suspected abuse. The Maryland Department of Human Services declined to comment on the case.
Dr. Allison Jackson, Division Chief of the Child & Adolescent Protection Center at Children's National Hospital, said the behavior by adults on the video constituted emotional abuse and discussions about beating the child spoke to the gap between what's legal and what's harmful.
"Some of the examples that I observed in that unfortunate video included terrorizing and humiliating, the yelling in the child's face, the degrading, the public kind of making him feel worthless. And then ... ignoring and denying a response to his emotional reaction. As if his emotions did not matter. All of those things are examples in the bucket of what might constitute emotional abuse," she said.
"This response ... is not one that would in any way be effective in helping him if there's some issue that needs to be addressed, and it certainly could make those things worse for him," she said. "He's in that vulnerable age group where the more adverse experiences that occur, the increased chance he has, or child like him has, for having poor health outcomes in adulthood that can result in early aging, early death."
Police: Mom's 'going to spank you today'
The incident began when the 5-year-old kindergarten student at East Silver Spring Elementary School left school grounds and administrators called police, but Holland said the officers shouldn't have even been there in the first place. The child wasn't missing from the school and a school official had sight of him, Holland said. But once the call was dispatched, without a supervisor canceling the call, the officers had an obligation to respond.
Christmon found the boy leaning against a car. The video shows him with his hands withdrawn into his long sleeves. The officer asks his age, and the boy says, "Five."
"You feel like you can make your own decisions?" the officer responded. His tone is terse and his voice louder than what would be used in a conversational setting. "You feel like you can do what you want? Are you an adult? Are you 18? So why are you outside of school?" the officer asks.
He asks the boy why he's out of school, and then says he doesn't care if the boy doesn't want to go to school.
A short while later, the officer grabs the boy by the arm, and walks him up the street to a woman who appears to be a school administrator. They then walk to the officer's squad car.
The boy says "no, no, no" as they approach the squad car, and one of the women tells him there's no crying; it's not clear if it's the voice of the other officer or a school administrator.
The officer tells the boy to get in the car, and he doesn't. The officer lifts him into the car. When the boy starts crying, the officer says, "I don't wanna hear it. I don't wanna hear it. You better stop."
The boy is crying hard enough that he starts coughing and is left alone in the squad car while the officer walks around the other side and cleans off his front seat for the school administrator.
Holliday then asks the boy twice if his mother spanks him. "'Cause she is today. She's gonna spank you today. 'Cause they're going to call her and tell her exactly what's going on. She's going to spank you today," she said. "I'm going to ask her if I can do it."
Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said he was "beyond saddened" by the video. His organization trains police officers to work with and in schools, and child brain development and behavior is part of their training. He said that because of their frequent contact with children and their families, they're able to stop a situation like this from escalating.
"We see it all the time, how (school resource officers) respond to things differently. They've been trained in how to de-escalate, how to bring some positive behavioral interaction there. It's just a whole different approach from what we saw in that video," he said.
While in the office waiting for the boy's mother, the officers talk about beating the child and that he should be beaten in front of school administrators, who don't object. One school official tells officers the boy's mother said she "whips" him, but the officers both express skepticism because of how the boy's behaving.
"And it's really not our role in law enforcement to be making those recommendations, whatsoever," Canady said. "It's beyond inappropriate for someone to suggest that. That's beyond concerning."
In less than three minutes, Christmon can be heard yelling at the boy to sit down and is seen lifting him into a chair, calling him a "violent little thing," suggesting that "pieces of that keyboard go right into that butt" after school officials said he broke a computer, that he "wouldn't be able to sit down nowhere," and lunges across the room after the boy pushes a phone away from a school employee, causing the boy to retreat and cower from the officer.
During the same three minutes, Holliday says "this is why people need to beat their kids," and tells the boy "I hope your momma let me beat you" while the child is still crying. She continues, "Oh, my god, I'd beat him so bad ... I'm telling you he couldn't sit in that chair," and gets within inches of his face and screams repeatedly from a distance of a few inches.
During much of the video, the officers and school administrators talk about the boy as if he's not there. Administrators called the boy's mother to the school, and at one point during a phone conversation, she overheard someone asking about whether anything might be going on at home. Within seconds of getting to the school's office, she stands up her son, removes his shirt and spins him around to say that shows she's not leaving marks on her child.
"I spank him. But I can't discipline him how I want to discipline him because of this. I'm not losing my child to the system and I'm not going to prison," she says.
"He's not being physically abused," she says.
"Who said he was?" Holliday asks.
"We believe it's the exact opposite" Christmon says.
"We want you to beat him," Holliday says.
The boy is briefly put in handcuffs
The video concludes with the officers leaving a conference room where the officers and a school official talk with the boy's mother about the extent to which she's allowed to hit her child and what type of language would trigger a school official to report suspected abuse to social services.
The boy's mother explains to the officers that two people at the school had mentioned child protective services to her in the past.
"It was stated to me... don't let no one else hear you say that, because that's a CPS case. I would have to report that. I didn't say I was gon' beat him with a belt," she says.
Christmon recalled a call he responded to where someone called the police on an adult hitting a child. When they found out it was a parent, Christmon says they left the scene.
"You can most definitely... Matter of fact, we applaud the fact that you would. Please beat your kid," Christmon says.
"All I can tell you is, beat that ass," Holliday says.
"We're mandated reporters... so if you say things, depending on who the person is and depending on what their beliefs are and depending on what they hear, if they hear something that sounds like, Oh, my god... they have to call, they have to call," the school administrator says.
"Where I come from ... my mother done knocked the sh*t out of me," the boy's mother says.
"And you're allowed to do that," school administrator replies.
Someone from the school brings the boy back into the room at Holliday's request, and his mother asks him what's going on.
"I'm not listening," the boy says. The administrator lists off the boy's behavior while the mother is talking to him.
"What mommy gonna do? Huh?"
"Beat me in the butt," he says. His mother looks toward Christmon.
"How many times I gotta talk to you? You want me to keep beating your ass?"
"No," the boy replies.
"You want her to let me do it?" Holliday asks.
"You want the police officer to take you?" the boy's mother asks.
"No," the boy replies.
"I don't like bad children, bad disrespectful children. I think they need to be beaten, and that's what I told your mom," Holliday says.
A couple minutes later, Christmon puts the handcuffs on the boy as he said continued bad behavior would likely lead him to encounters with police in the future.
Canady, whose organization trains officers, said the ordeal "goes beyond making me sad."
"The handcuffing, to me, I don't care if you're trying to teach some kind of lesson. There's no reason to put cuffs on a 5-year-old," Canady said. "That's pretty egregious. The suggestion of beating with a keyboard. That's pretty egregious. That's just, those are not the things that anyone should anticipate or expect a law enforcement officer to do."
And at the end of the ordeal, the officers' parting words are to encourage the mother to beat her son.
"Just don't leave no cuts or no crazy cigarette burns, nothing like that. We good. Alright, meeting adjourned," Christmon says to the boy's mother.
And to the boy, the officer says, "Enjoy yourself today when you get that whooping."
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