On August 27th, the third day of 7th grader Isaiah Elliott’s remote online learning experience, the unthinkable happened: officials at Grand Mountain School in Colorado Springs, Colorado called the police on the 12-year old boy and his friend after a teacher saw him handle a toy gun during a class being streamed on Zoom. The incident is one his parents say should have been handled much differently. Instead, Isaiah and his friend were suspended and verbally chastised by officers in his own home with the threat of criminal charges. BET.com reached out to Widefield School District administrators for a comment to which they responded, "Due to privacy laws, we cannot comment on the incident. We are working with the family to resolve their concerns. It is our hope to move forward as a district, as a community, and as a society."
Since this happened to Isaiah in August 2020, two other boys have found themselves in similar situations. A teacher spotted a BB gun in the bedroom of a 9-year old from the New Orleans area during a remote-learning class and sixth grader in Golden, Colorado was recently suspended for four days after he says he mindlessly handling his Airsoft gun while remote learning on Zoom.
The Elliotts, however, have since removed their son, who has ADHD, from the school as he works through the fear he experienced in his first interaction with police officers. Here, his mother, Dani Elliott offers her side of the story and why she won’t stop fighting for her son and other children like him.
Imagine being a preteen, an only child, isolated and away from your friends, your classmates and your school for months on end due to an ongoing deadly global pandemic. Then imagine more than five months into this already distressing situation, having to manage the challenges of a learning disability with a full-time online schooling schedule. Now, think about how you’d feel if a group of cops showed up at the front door of your home, which is supposed to be a safe space, threatening to arrest you and your friend for goofing off with a toy gun inside your own house.
I don’t have to imagine it; that true nightmare happened to my 12-year old son Isaiah just over a month ago on August 27th. I was at work when my husband, Curtis who’s in the Air Force, got called to the base located about seven minutes away from our home in Colorado Springs, CO. He didn’t think much about leaving our son at home briefly, because another boy, his 7th grade classmate at Grand Mountain School, would also be there. The boy’s mother had asked if he could complete his virtual schooling at our house while she worked. Naturally, we agreed to help out.
My husband had barely been gone 15 minutes when Isaiah, who has been prescribed medication for Attention Hyper Deficit Disorder (ADHD), had apparently picked up a black, neon green and orange gun during his virtual art class being streamed via Zoom. He told us he’d just moved the phony weapon with the words “Zombie Hunter” printed on it, from one side of the couch to the other where he was sitting. His teacher was apparently so alarmed when it briefly flashed across her computer screen that she emailed me expressing her concern. I responded, assuring her that it definitely was a toy gun and that I would speak to my son about it. I assumed the situation was over, but that could be no further from the truth.
Instead, even after receiving my response, she alerted the vice principal. What we didn’t know at the time, among many other things, is that she was following a school mandate requiring all teachers to record their classes without the consent or knowledge of parents or students. Once informed about the situation, did the principal or vice principal call or text me or my husband? No. Did either of them attempt to speak directly to Isaiah? Nope again. According to a police report we later received, a school security operations manager contacted the Widefield School District office and was told to suspend Isaiah and his friend for five days — without ever speaking to any of the parents, students or verifying whether the gun was, in fact, real or fake. They were also told to call the El Paso County Sheriff's Office to request a student “welfare check” on both boys. I was only notified by phone after the fact that officers were en-route to our house. Of course, I called my husband in a panic, urging him to go home immediately.
Did those officers rush to my house to ensure that these two Black boys, one with a well-documented learning disability and a 504 Plan on file at the school, were safe from what one of the administrators had described as a potentially “unsafe situation?” No, again. Instead, the police first stopped by the school to interview the administrators. During that conversation, which I later saw after I obtained the bodycam footage, the officers were shown a recording of the brief incident; the teacher was also seen in the video stating that she believed it was likely a toy gun. Did the situation end there? Nope.
Before the officers left the campus, the vice principal made a point to mention to them that my son and his friend were known “goofballs” at school. Then during a discussion about the identity of the second child, who the officers later told my husband had reportedly pointed the toy gun at the computer screen, the vice principal indicated that she would be ready to “pull the trigger” on contacting his parents. After the laughter subsided, she admitted it was “a bad joke,” but one of the deputies assured her, “No, that’s good; that’s good.” Interestingly, that portion of the video had been redacted and edited by the time the sheriff’s department posted the bodycam video to its Facebook page over a week later.
It took the same school resource officers some four and a half hours to arrive at our home in two patrol cars to check on Isaiah and his friend. Once my husband let them in, they proceeded to explain to the boys that had this situation occurred in “a school setting you would be getting criminally charged because that’s interference with an educational institution” and that “technically we can probably still push that right now.” Despite telling the vice principal earlier in the bodycam footage that charges were unlikely, they suggested to my son and his friend that they were being cut a break because “if it happens again” he “won’t have the leeway to do that.” Neither officer requested to see the weapon in question until after their lecture. So much for an “unsafe situation.”
We were later told that an informational report of the incident would be filed with both the sheriff’s department and the school; it indicated that the boys were officially suspended for violating the school district’s policy regarding possession of a weapon on school grounds or at school functions or events; there was no apparent differentiation between an incident taking place in-person and one taking place in a virtual learning environment. My question to the Widefield School District is how did these boys violate a policy that, as far as we know, has never actually been written for virtual schooling?
As if this travesty of a situation couldn’t get any worse, I later discovered social media posts from a teacher who previously taught my son at the school — someone who I had entrusted with my child’s care — overtly joking about the incident on her personal Snapchat account and on her Facebook page. Later, I asked Isaiah how that teacher had treated him in class; he said he regularly felt like she shooed him away when he asked for help with his work because, he says she acted like she didn’t have the energy or the time to deal with him. A child should never be made to feel like a nuisance by a teacher, especially a student with learning challenges.
Needless to say, my husband and I are furious, disgusted and heartbroken; as a mom I feel helpless and guilty that I allowed my child to be in this toxic environment for as long as he was. This could have been a valuable teaching moment addressed with a simple phone call to the parents; instead these two Black boys were profiled and treated like criminals-in-training; held to the standard of adults, not the goofy kids they clearly are. Our only comfort is knowing that they didn’t end up hurt or dead at the hands of overzealous police officers, like Tamir Rice, George Floyd or Breonna Taylor.
We have withdrawn Isaiah from Grand Mountain School because we no longer trust that the Widefield School District can adequately, ethically or safely educate, protect and care for our child. We’re working on getting him into a nearby charter school and also gearing up for a fight on behalf of our son and other children like him; especially kids of color, Black kids specifically, and kids with learning disabilities, who research confirms are often disproportionately targeted and disciplined more harshly than white students at schools across the country.
Parents everywhere who care about equity, justice and the Constitutional right to a proper education, we urge you to come together, get active and do your part to help us put an end to these practices that criminalize our children for typical childhood behavior and feed into the school-to-prison pipeline. We also believe that school districts must develop clear-cut policies for both in-person and virtual learning environments. Children who have challenges, like Isaiah, should also be provided special education support during the pandemic period; not left to figure it out online or worse; face insults or threats of arrest. We deserved better. The boys deserved better and we won’t stop raising our voices until Isaiah and other children get the fair treatment in school that they deserve.
Chandra Thomas Whitfield is an award-winning multimedia journalist who interviewed Dani Elliott for this story. Whitfield’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Essence, NBCNews.com and The Huffington Post. She’s the host and producer of In The Gap, a recently launched podcast for In These Times magazine about pay discrimination and other challenges Black women experience on their jobs.