Photography by Cooper Neill
SHREVEPORT, La. ― Two years ago, at the start of the school year, Rosie Phillips got a call from her son’s school, asking her to come pick him up. When she arrived, she found him slumped on the hallway floor, sitting in a puddle of his own urine, with a Taser prong still attached to his body. A crowd of adults huddled around him, staring and chatting, not paying him much attention. Phillips called her son’s name, and he looked at her blankly.
Phillips waited hours for the vacant stare to fade from the 17-year-old’s face. Two years later, it still haunts her. Was it a look of fear? Anger? Submission? She imagines it over and over, searching her memory for clues.
Phillips will never know the full story of what happened at Northwood High School in Caddo Parish that morning. Her son, J.H., has autism and is nonverbal. From what she’s pieced together since watching security footage and talking with a witness, J.H. was stressed, and left the classroom to go to the bathroom. On his way back, he started engaging in stimming behaviors, a repetition of movements that is common in kids with autism. He lingered in the hallway, rubbing against the wall, cupping his ears and closing his eyes.
The school’s cop, identified in a lawsuit filed by Phillips as Deputy Nunnery, arrived on the scene after staff called for backup. By that point, administrators and J.H. were engaged in a struggle ― J.H. had repeatedly tried to reenter his classroom while administrators blocked him. Nunnery already had his Taser out when he arrived, says the suit. But what Phillips’ complaint describes as typical stimming behaviors throughout, the sheriff’s office repeatedly describes as a series of threatening kicks, shoves, pushes and lunges, even throwing one administrator off balance. After five additional minutes, the teen attempted to break free from a semicircle of adults that had formed around him. While running, his leg kicked in the direction of an administrator, and Nunnery struck J.H. with thousands of electric volts, sending him tumbling to the ground.
J.H., who is being identified by his initials because he was a minor at the time of the incident, peed himself, either out of fear, or as a result of the random muscle contractions caused by the electroshock. He sat in a pool of his own urine until emergency responders intervened 13 minutes later, per the lawsuit. When Phillips arrived on the scene, a paramedic patted her on the shoulder and told her that “everything was OK now,” she says. She turned to him and said that nothing was OK about the situation.
Phillips, who worked for the state of Louisiana for 34 years and now works part-time at a restaurant, didn’t know her son could be Tasered at school. She didn’t know it had already been happening all around the country for years, or that people like her son were especially at risk.
While some forms of discipline, like suspensions or referrals to police, are meticulously documented, there isn’t any systematic tracking of how often kids are Tasered at school. Through tracking local news reports on the issue and lawsuits, HuffPost has created its own minimum count.
Our investigation found that children have been Tasered by school cops in at least 143 incidents since September 2011. We specifically tracked incidents where the cop worked full or part time at the school. Our number represents a bare minimum count, as most of these incidents are likely not reported by local media or subject to litigation.
Over the past several years, children have been Tasered for a range of behaviors, sometimes merely for childhood misbehaviors like talking back, even as these weapons have the ability to seriously injure or even kill, our investigation found. (A 2017 Reuters investigation uncovered 150 autopsy reports that referenced Taser use as a cause or contributing factor to deaths since the early 2000s, around the country.)
A 15-year-old child with special needs was Tasered in New Mexico earlier this year after mouthing off. (The deputy in this case now faces charges of child abuse.) In 2018, a deputy in Ohio used a Taser to awake a sleeping student. Victims have been as young as 11 years old. Students have been stunned near the heart — despite the high safety risk associated with doing so.
Tasers in schools have also been used to protect children, deescalating acts of near-fatal violence. In 2016, school cops used a Taser to subdue a student who had stabbed five classmates. On at least several occasions, deputies have successfully used Tasers to protect students from violent intruders.
The number of electroshock weapons in schools has risen in recent decades with the number of cops in schools.
In 1997, only 10% of schools reported employing a police officer. But after the Columbine shooting in 1999, these numbers started to skyrocket. In the wake of Parkland, these numbers are only poised to increase, with states and the federal government further injecting funding into such positions, a move designed to protect students from active shooters.
More than half of all public schools employed a sworn law enforcement officer as of the 2017-18 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Of these officers, more than 90% carried a “physical restraint,” like handcuffs or a Taser.
There’s conflicting research about whether or not cops make schools safer overall. Statistics suggest that their presence can help funnel kids into the criminal justice system for schoolyard misbehaviors, especially students of color. On the other hand, schools with cops are more likely to have emergency safety plans in place. Many districts don’t require these cops to have special training before working with children, meaning they might apply the same tactics in a school hallway as they would on the street.
“It raises a lot of policy issues about how can school resource officers be safely integrated into school systems and have their role be limited to imminent risk of serious bodily injury,” said Diane Smith Howard, managing attorney for criminal and juvenile justice at the National Disability Rights Network. “When they’re around, they get used for this other stuff.”
Nunnery, however, had attended state-provided training for cops who worked in schools, according to Edwin Byrd, the attorney representing the sheriff’s office and Nunnery. In the aftermath of the incident with J.H., the school held a training for deputies on working with students with disabilities, too, but Phillips saw it as too little, too late. She said the day would have continued as any other if Nunnery had understood how to deescalate the situation, by talking to J.H. calmly and giving him some time to himself.
Byrd said the deputy acted slowly and deliberately in assessing the situation.
“The deputy was asked to assist after administrators were dealing with this child for a long time,” said Byrd. “He waited for a long time until he believed that kind of intervention was necessary.”
The Caddo Parish school district, which is not named in Phillips’ suit, did not respond to requests for comment.
J.H. is big at 6 feet, but gentle, his mother says. When he’s having a good day ― one of those days when a grin is painted on his face — his joy spreads through his house, from room to room. One summer afternoon in July, he had one of those days. He spent long, smiley hours in his favorite room, the one with big windows, basking in the sunlight. He listened to music with the volume on low — loud music disturbs him — with an iPad or iPhone held up to his ear (his family keeps a device charged at all times, so he can quickly switch when one runs out of battery). He watched his two younger nieces, laughing as they attempted cartwheels and tumbles, speedily scurrying out of the room when their high-pitched voices became too loud. J.H. doesn’t go anywhere slowly. When he has to use the restroom or get a drink of water, he rushes there.
Phillips said J.H. has always liked school. He’s attended one since he was 3 years old. Before that August day, he had never had any disciplinary issues, his mom said.
“I can only imagine how confused and frightened he must have been during that particular moment. I try not to think about it because it hurts my heart,” she said.
Phillips filed suit against the local sheriff’s office a year after the incident, after her attorney had an opportunity to obtain the tape of the incident and review evidence. Her suit says the office had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to take adequate steps to avoid discriminating against her son — including providing any training on working specifically with these students — despite knowing it had an obligation to accommodate people with disabilities. It’s not about the money, she said, but about making sure the police officer has the proper awareness and procedures in place.
The sheriff’s office is working to get the case dismissed. It denies claims of discrimination, saying in a response to the lawsuit that “accommodating Plaintiff’s alleged disability further would have resulted in a fundamental alteration of Defendant’s procedure.”
The office claims J.H. posed a serious threat to Nunnery and school staff. What Phillips’ complaint describes as stimming, and “minor struggles” with staff, including a kick in the direction of an administrator, the sheriff’s office describes as a series of threatening kicks, shoves, strikes and lunges. There is video footage taken from a security camera at the school, but HuffPost has not been able to view it because it is under seal, as J.H. was a minor at the time of the incident. The contents of the tape ― which Phillips watched ― are described in legal documents.
But according to the sheriff’s office, Nunnery arrived on the scene and learned that J.H. had physically resisted administrators’ efforts to get him out of his classroom (after he reentered) and struck them with his body multiple times. J.H. had just tried to kick an administrator after moving past Nunnery when he deployed the Taser. J.H. posed a risk to the safety of fellow students and teachers, said Byrd.
“It is unfortunate, but the deputy was very concerned about the safety of the folks this individual was dealing with,” said Byrd, who described J.H. as very large and aggressive.
J.H.’s lawyer finds it baffling that Nunnery was so threatened by the teenager. Stimming is a typical behavior for someone with autism. J.H. was not on the street; he was outside of his special education classroom. He was unarmed.
“You had police roaming the hallways of schools, in a militarized situation. Then they treat individuals with disabilities just like they are a suspect on the street,” said Garret DeReus, Phillips’ lawyer. “That’s really not how it should go — these are students in a school trying to get educated.”
When Phillips left her son’s school that day, her arms shook so furiously that she had trouble managing the steering wheel on the ride home. She was overcome with the emotions that her son ― her typically sweet, smiley boy — couldn’t verbalize.
‘He Had No Idea What A Taser Was’
J.H. revels in simple pleasures, like gardening, eating sweet potatoes and sitting for hours outside, enjoying the breeze. Some days, Phillips is sure her son can tell she’s had a bad day. Those are the days that he might plop a wet kiss on her cheek, even though he hates touching — a result of his heightened sensory perception.
But in the weeks after being Tasered, Phillips says J.H. was different. He stayed home from school for a month. (He eventually switched to a different one.) He clung to his mom and sister and aunt every time they tried to leave the house or even switched rooms. He was afraid to be alone. He regressed to old behaviors from when he was younger. He would even wait for his loved ones outside the bathroom door, afraid to have them out of his sight for too long.
“He was just scared in his own home,” Phillips said as her eyes welled up.
Even still, when Phillips gets irritable with her son or reprimands him, he’ll flinch. It’s not something he used to do.
Phillips — who has had nightmares about J.H.’s school bus getting into an accident, or about him getting separated from his emergency contact card and not being able to explain where he lives — used to feel safe when her son was at school. She knew he was surrounded by aides and professionals, and she assumed they knew how to serve his unique needs.
She replays that day in her head. She wonders if her son does too, especially on days when he wakes up in a bad mood.
“It’s been a deep hurt as a parent,” Phillips said. “My child suffered and he couldn’t even express how he felt.”
If J.H. was another one of Phillips’ two other children, both adults now, she would encourage him to talk about his feelings from that day, pushing him to unpack his fear and hurt. Because she can’t, she tries to love him as fiercely as she can and to make him feel safe.
Now, whenever Phillips gets a call from J.H.’s new school, she assumes the worst, even though he has experienced acts of kindness since his first day there. Before J.H. stepped foot inside the building at Captain Shreve High School, where he now attends, the school’s cop introduced himself and told J.H. he would be safe.
Phillips hopes it helped. But not knowing might be the worst part.
“He had no idea what a Taser was. I don’t know how painful it was for him. I don’t know what he was thinking. He couldn’t even say, ‘Stop — you’re hurting me, call my mom,’ nothing,” she said. “That kills my soul.”