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."
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."
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.