Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Here's what should have happened when a Pinellas deputy encountered a student with autism

In 16 years as a school resource officer at Osceola Middle, Ural Darling was trained by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to de-escalate chaotic situations, especially when they involved people with disabilities.

But on May 15, a hidden device recorded something different as Darling could be heard mistreating a student with autism — taunting the boy with a pair of handcuffs, threatening to send him to a mental hospital for life, scolding him with rapid-fire talk and forcing him to hold a stack of books.

The boy's mother, suspecting something was wrong at school, had put the recorder in her son's cargo shorts that day.

Just how far did the veteran deputy veer from his training, and from generally accepted guidelines for dealing with autistic children? Pretty far, according to experts in the disability and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who fired Darling on Aug. 25.

"That is the antithesis of de-escalation," Gualtieri said. "You should never be contributing to the problem. None of what he did was consistent with any training that he's received."

SEE THE VIDEO: Pinellas school officer taunted, berated and threatened a student with autism

Autism experts say Darling and Marge Aspell, the school's behavior specialist who was recorded joining in on the taunting, went against universal protocol for dealing with people with autism who are in distress.

"The way it was handled it kind of set (the boy) up to continue to fail," said Lauren Gardner, a pediatric psychologist and administrative director of the Autism Center at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. "I wouldn't want any child to be talked to that way in a school setting. I can't really see how that approach would've been successful with any child, in my opinion."

Ideally, according to experts, the student should have been assessed to determine why he acts out and what calms him down. And that should be followed by efforts to address behavior before it escalates.

"The idea is to prevent problems from happening in the first place," said Karen Berkman, executive director of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida.

And when outbursts do occur, experts said, the number one rule for any student is to let them calm down in a safe space — a strategy everyone should know, including law enforcement. Gardner said the deputy would have found better results by letting the boy calm himself in a quiet area with a stress ball or with a favorite blanket, or by taking a walk with him outside. Anything but scolding an autistic child after an outburst, she said.

According Gualtieri, the boy, now 14 years old, has the cognitive ability of a first-grader and the communication level of a kindergarten student.

Instead of harping on the behavior, Gardner said it's best to talk to someone with autism about how to communicate feelings and model that behavior. Threats and sarcasm can confuse individuals with autism, and non-verbal cues like gesturing are best.

"Adults have a tendency to over-explain and talk too much," Gardner said. "It's much better to give them concise information (that's) less wordy."

Berkman echoed the idea of using a calm voice and giving clear directions. If these strategies are followed correctly, an upset child can recover and return to the classroom.

"The higher someone's anxiety level, the less capable they will be able to perform a task," Berkman said. "Reducing fear, anxiety, frustration can lead to better outcomes."

Though Gualtieri said deputies do not complete trainings specific to autism, Darling learned some of those techniques in more general training sessions.

He said the deputy completed a week-long "crisis intervention team" training designed to recognize those who may be acting out because of mental and behavioral health issues. He also took a short online course last year and attended a two-hour training in 2013 on "autism updates."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: School resource officer fired for berating student with autism appeals to get his job back

Last week Darling, a veteran deputy and a former state School Resource of the Year, filed an appeal to be reinstated.

Across the Pinellas County school system, about 1,500 students qualify for services for autism spectrum disorder, according to district officials.

The Florida Legislature recently passed a measure requiring the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to create training relating to individuals on the spectrum. Lessons could include recognizing symptoms and characteristics of someone with autism and how to respond appropriately.

The law takes effect in October. Gualtieri said he will review the FDLE training and consider sending deputies.

Gardner said training provided to law enforcement officers should include role-playing ways to de-escalate situations and include a broader sense of how to deal with people who may have mental health issues.

"This incident really does underline the fact that there does need to be training in place for all law enforcement officers," she said.

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

Here's what should have happened when a Pinellas deputy encountered a student with autism 09/02/17 [Last modified: Saturday, September 2, 2017 9:20pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. 'Empire' star Grace Byers keynotes USF Women in Leadership & Philanthropy luncheon

    Human Interest


    TAMPA — The first University of South Florida graduate to address the USF's Women in Leadership & Philanthropy supporters, Grace Gealey Byers, class of 2006, centered her speech on her first name, turning it into a verb to share life lessons.

    Grace Byers, University of South Florida Class of 2006, stars on the Fox television show Empire. She delivered the keynote at the USF Women in Leadership and Philanthropy luncheon Friday. Photo by Amy Scherzer
  2. Southeast Seminole Heights holds candlelight vigil for victims' families and each other


    TAMPA — They came together in solidarity in Southeast Seminole Heights, to sustain three families in their grief and to confront fear, at a candlelight vigil held Sunday night in the central Tampa neighborhood.

    A peaceful march that began on east New Orleans Avenue was held during the candlelight vigil for the three victims who were killed in the recent shootings in the Seminole Heights neighborhood in Tampa on Sunday, October 22, 2017.
  3. It's not just Puerto Rico: FEMA bogs down in Florida, Texas too

    HOUSTON — Outside Rachel Roberts' house, a skeleton sits on a chair next to the driveway, a skeleton child on its lap, an empty cup in its hand and a sign at its feet that reads "Waiting on FEMA."

    Ernestino Leon sits among the debris removed from his family’s flood-damaged Bonita Springs home on Oct. 11. He has waited five weeks for FEMA to provide $10,000 to repair the home.
  4. McConnell says he's awaiting Trump guidance on health care

    STERLING, Va. — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday he's willing to bring bipartisan health care legislation to the floor if President Donald Trump makes clear he supports it.

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he’s “not certain yet” on what Trump wants.
  5. Tampa's Lance McCullers shows killer instinct in pitching Astros to World Series


    HOUSTON — It felt like the beginning on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park, the arrival of a new force on the World Series stage. The Astros are back, for the first time in a dozen years, and they want to stay a while.

    Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers (43) throwing in the fifth inning of the game between the Houston Astros and the Tampa Bay Rays in Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Sunday, July 12, 2015.