2021 | Courts

In lawsuit response, police officers deny mistreating 5-year-old boy

School district argues it was not negligent

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Two Montgomery County police officers accused of harassing, threatening and assaulting a 5-year-old boy after he walked away from his elementary school in 2020 deny they treated the boy like a criminal and deny that the school staff should have “protected” him from them.

In response to a lawsuit that has drawn national attention, the officers seen on body camera footage telling the child he deserves to be beaten, screaming in his face and calling him names like “little beast” and “bad” argue that they did not act illegally.

They disagree with assertions that they belittled the boy, that they treated him “like a criminal,” and that the boy needed to be protected from their alleged “abuse.”

In separate court filings, the Montgomery County Board of Education and the county government ask for some counts in the lawsuit against them to be dismissed, largely for “failing to state a claim.”

On Jan. 14, 2020, Officers Kevin Christmon and Dionne Holliday responded to a call that the 5-year-old boy had left East Silver Spring Elementary School.

Within two minutes of arriving on the scene — less than a quarter-mile from the school — and approaching the boy, Christmon is stern with the boy, who is quiet and hesitant to answer questions.

The boy begins to cry and becomes increasingly upset, eventually screaming and appearing to hyperventilate. Christmon grabs the boy’s arm and escorts him into a police car. He then drives him and the school’s assistant principal, Justine Pfeiffer, who was present throughout, back to the school.

At the school, the police told the boy to sit down in a chair. When he hesitates, one officer picks him up and puts him in the chair. The boy again becomes upset and cries as the officers forcefully tell him to “shut that noise up.”

When he is seated, Holliday is shown letting out five screams inches from the boy’s face, mocking the 5-year-old’s cries.

“I need to beat on somebody,” she then said, one of several references to “beating” children or the boy.

After the boy’s mother arrives, the officers bring them both into a conference room. After a brief conversation in which they tell the mother she can legally “beat” the child, an officer places one handcuff around the boy’s wrist and put both hands behind his back.

Fourteen months after the incident, the police department released a 51-minute video showing what happened.

Throughout the video, MCPS staff members can be seen standing by and talking about the boy’s disciplinary history.

A year after the incident, in January 2021, the boy’s family filed a lawsuit against the officers, school system and county government, alleging assault, battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, violation of rights, negligence and infliction of emotional distress.

In a response to the lawsuit, Christmon and Holliday admit to nearly all of the quotes attributed to them in the lawsuit and documented on video, but repeatedly allege “facts, statements and information material to a complete and accurate depiction of the events” are omitted. They do not specify what has been omitted.

In the response, filed on Friday, the officers also deny “grabbing” the child, treating him “like a criminal,” and that he was “in hysterics.”

Further, they deny threatening the boy, mistreating him, or acting in a way that necessitated that the boy receive “protection” from them. The lawsuit had alleged that school officials who were present should have protected the boy from the officers’ treatment.

In reference to instances in which the officers placed the boy in a chair, they say he was “attempting to flee” and deny any characterization that they “grabbed” the boy or “forced” him into the chair.

School board argument

In a separate court filing, the Montgomery County Board of Education asked that allegations that school staff members were negligent and violated the boy’s rights be dismissed.

The board argues that, although the child exited the school, he was in the presence of the assistant principal and was supervised.

The lawsuit alleges that Pfeiffer, the assistant principal, was within feet of the boy when police arrived.

Back at the school, she is heard on the body camera video saying it is school district policy to call the police whenever a child leaves school property without permission.

A school district spokeswoman recently told Bethesda Beat that is not true, and whether police are needed “depends on the situation and concerns for safety.”

The school board also argues that the family does not prove that the failure of officials to keep the boy in the school is what caused harm to the boy. School employees could not have “reasonably anticipated the behavior of the officers,” the district said in its response.

“BOE employees met the duty of due care in following (the child) off school property and calling the police to assist in returning him to school,” the response says. “… Further, the manner in which the officers allegedly treated Plaintiff when they arrived was wholly unforeseeable.”

Assuming MCPS employees should have known otherwise would set a dangerous precedent that anyone who calls 911 would be held responsible for the misconduct of police who respond to the incident, the school board argued.

The school board also argued that there is no law establishing a duty for school staff members to intervene to protect students from alleged police misconduct.

“Plaintiff’s attempt in her lawsuit to utilize armchair reflection and Monday morning quarterbacking to manufacture a duty for MCPS employees to intervene in this situation is not supported by case law or statutory law.”

Finally, the school board argued in its court filing that the family did not “expressly identify” what rights of the child were violated when school employees shared details about his disciplinary history with the responding officers.

The family has asked for a jury trial and more than $200,000 in damages. A trial had not been scheduled as of Tuesday afternoon. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for late October.

Response since the incident

Both Christmon and Holliday remain employed by the Montgomery County Police Department.

Police department officials have said an internal investigation was conducted and the officers were disciplined, but have not released any specific details.

When asked by Montgomery County Council members during a meeting in April if the officers were still in positions in which they could respond to a similar situation again, Chief Marcus Jones said yes.

The police department received a complaint in January 2020 about the officers’ actions, the same month as the incident. The complaint was assigned to an investigator in the police department’s Internal Affairs Division, which is staffed by a captain, a lieutenant and six investigators.

Jones said he did not watch the body cam footage until December. The two officers were interviewed in August 2020.

During that County Council meeting in April, now-retired MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith declined to answer questions about specifics of the case, MCPS employees’ behavior or possible disciplinary action against them, citing pending litigation.

However, the same week, Pfeiffer was placed on administrative leave.

In April, Smith said the school district’s top officials were not aware of the severity of the incident until Bethesda Beat first reported about the family’s lawsuit in January 2021. Similarly, Rich Madaleno, the county’s chief administrative officer, said county officials were not aware of the incident until the Bethesda Beat story was published.

In response to the incident, the County Council is considering two new proposed bills that aim to increase police accountability and training requirements.

One bill, sponsored by council President Tom Hucker, would require body cameras to be worn and operated by all county police officers in uniform, or those who display a badge or insignia.

It also would require the county police department’s Internal Affairs Division to review any body camera footage and report to the police chief any case related to the use of force, involving children younger than 18, a potential criminal offense by an officer, or a fatality or serious bodily injury to a person with whom police are interacting.

A separate bill sponsored by Council Member Will Jawando focuses on training. Before attending the county’s police academy, candidates would have to go through a five-week, 30-hour training course. They would take classes on racial equity, conflict resolution, policing history and community policing.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com