Two years after police officers screamed at and handcuffed a kindergarten student, local leaders continue to call for a resolution to the family’s lawsuit, even after a judge cleared the county from liability.
During a virtual event on Monday, Council Member Tom Hucker again called on attorneys to admit that the officers harmed the boy, so the county can settle the case.
But in a hearing last week, a judge dismissed all of the allegations against the county. Almost all allegations against the officers involved also were dismissed; two counts remain.
In an interview on Monday, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said that even though the county government has been absolved of legal responsibility, he still would like to work with the family.
“Just because we’re not technically liable doesn’t mean that kid didn’t experience something that he shouldn’t have experienced and we’re not ignoring that,” Elrich said.
On Jan. 14, 2020, a 5-year-old boy walked away from East Silver Spring Elementary School, prompting administrators to call police. Over the next two hours, as the boy became increasingly upset, the officers called him names like “little beast” and screamed within inches of his face, mocking his cries, while school district employees watched.
Later, after the boy’s mother arrived, the officers encouraged her to “beat” the boy to keep him in line and coached her on how to do it without getting in trouble.
The incident was not disclosed to county or school district leaders until a year later, in January 2021, when Bethesda Beat reported about it, after a lawsuit was filed by the family. The body camera footage showing the incident was released about two months later.
“All of us parents would like to send our kids off into a world where there are no threats to their safety, but we know that’s unrealistic,” Hucker said Monday, in an event in which he invited other elected officials, PTA leaders and community advocates to speak. “We expect there will be some dangers our children will encounter at some point, whether it’s on the street at their school or any other place, but we cannot accept a world in which traumatization and bullying of any child is actually coming from a county employee.”
The status of the case is no longer viewable in online court records as of this month. The family’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment on Friday and Monday. The court was closed on Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
But in an email on Monday afternoon, county spokesman Scott Peterson wrote that most of the charges against the two officers were dismissed in a hearing last week. Two charges — assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress — remain against the officers.
All of the allegations against the county government were dismissed, and the county is no longer a party in the case, Peterson wrote.
In a separate hearing last week, the court denied MCPS’ motion to dismiss the charges against the district.
In a recent interview, Elrich told Bethesda Beat he does “not want to fight this thing in court and I’m not interested in finding out how to win,” but he was waiting for the family’s attorneys to “make a demand.”
The family’s attorneys told Bethesda Beat in June they would be willing to settle the case.
“I have no interest in fighting this, and no interest in trying to leave with no responsibility. I was not very happy with what I saw, nor is anybody else,” Elrich, a former elementary school teacher, said. “This is not something you should try to win, this is not something I’m interested in winning. … I wouldn’t take any pride in that.”
The two officers — Kevin Christmon and Dionne Holliday — confronted the boy less than a quarter-mile from the school. They were immediately stern with him, according to a body camera video released of the incident last year, and become increasingly aggressive as the boy gets more upset.
Christmon grabs the boy’s arm and escorts him into a police car. Christmon drives the boy and then-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 hesitated, one officer picked him up and put 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 the officers made 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 puts both of the boy’s hands behind his back.
The incident sparked intense criticism of county police, leaders and the school district, coming from around the world.
The family in January 2021 filed a lawsuit against the officers and MCPS alleging assault and battery, false arrest, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional arrest. It also alleged violations of the Maryland Declaration of Rights and negligence against the Montgomery County school board.
Hucker on Monday applauded the family for filing the lawsuit, bringing the incident to county officials’ attention.
“I want you and everyone listening to know that despite everything you’ve gone through, it’s your bravery that has already made a difference for others and for our community,” he said. “Because you are strong enough to not just fight for your son, but to come out publicly and to seek justice in our courts.”
The 51-minute video from the incident was released in March 2021 following a public records request by Bethesda Beat and pressure from advocates.
Several speakers during Monday’s event — including U.S. Reps. Jamie Raskin and Anthony Brown — reflected on their initial reaction to the video.
Brown said it brought him to tears. Raskin called it “horrifying.”
“We have grownups bullying a child and agents of the government who are supposed to be on the side of rule of law and of the people bullying a little kid,” Raskin said. “That’s what’s so heartbreaking about the whole thing.”
After an internal investigation, both officers involved remain employed. The department has said that the officers faced discipline, but has declined to say what it was.
Pfeiffer was placed on administrative leave by MCPS briefly, then assigned to another school. Within weeks, she was reassigned to a position in the school district’s central office after pushback from the new school community.
The county government in November passed a new law, inspired by the incident, that requires all Montgomery County police officers in uniform or when displaying a badge or insignia to wear body cameras.
It also requires 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, a fatality or serious injury.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org