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Sheriff: Pinellas school officer taunted, berated and threatened a student with autism (w/video)

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said during a news conference Friday that he has fired a veteran school resource officer for mistreating a student with autism at Osceola Middle School. The officer was Ural Darling, who worked at the school for 17 years. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Aug. 26, 2017

LARGO — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Friday he has fired a veteran school resource officer at Osceola Middle School for berating and taunting a student who has autism.

The deputy, Ural Darling, had worked at the Sheriff's Office since 1995 and had been the school resource officer at Osceola Middle since 2001.

Last year, Darling was credited with saving the life of a woman who collapsed at the school and had no pulse, administering CPR and using an automated external defibrillator until paramedics arrived. In 2011, he was selected School Resource Officer of the Year for the state of Florida. And his personnel file contained some 60 letters of praise from staff at Osceola Middle.

But Gualtieri said his behavior toward a 13-year-old student, Evan Dowdy, during a May 15 incident was unacceptable, and that he was unapologetic about what he had done.

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The sheriff said Darling escorted Evan to the office of the school's behavior therapist after the boy threw a book at a teacher. Evan, he said, has the cognitive ability of a first-grader and the communication level of a kindergarten student.

He said the officer kept the boy in the office for about 25 minutes, during which he berated him and told him to hold a stack of three to five books. He told the boy to throw the books at him, but when the boy complied, he ordered him stop.

He said the officer taunted him with a pair of handcuffs, saying "This is what you've been wanting, right?"

He also told the boy that he would be put away in a mental hospital for the rest of his life if he threw a book again.

The school's behavior specialist, Marge Aspell, joined in the taunting of Evan, often completing Darling's sentences. Pinellas County school district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf did not comment on Aspell's status with the school district.

The incident was captured on an audio device that the boy's mother, Megan Dowdy, had placed in his cargo shorts that day. Gualtieri said she planted the device because the boy had been acting out and she feared it was because of events taking place at the school.

"It's like time stopped," Megan Dowdy recalled Friday. "It's just so unethical to treat anyone like this. I could not believe what I was hearing."

She added: "It's just something that replays in my mind that this happened to my child."

Though Darling doubled-down on his actions by insisting that he acted appropriately, Gualtieri said he admitted that he had "never been trained to act the way he did." Darling had received training on how to deal with children with autism, Gualtieri said.

Evan is now 14 and repeating sixth grade at Pinellas Park Middle, said Megan Dowdy, who works with autistic children as a pre-kindergarten teacher at Azalea Elementary.

"It's hard enough having a child with autism," she said. "But then for this to happen, it's insane."

She said Evan has been suffering from night terrors from the incident. Her son told her they were in danger when they saw a police car at Largo Mall and bolted for the door at Publix when he saw an officer who resembled Darling.

The Pinellas County school district said in a statement that district officials were "troubled" by the details of the case. "School resource officers are expected to work with students and staff in a respectful manner," the statement said. "We thank the Sheriff's Office for their thorough investigation into the allegations against Deputy Darling. We will work with the Sheriff's Office to identify a new school resource officer for Osceola Middle School."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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