Montgomery County officials have settled a lawsuit alleging police officers berated and assaulted a Silver Spring elementary school student in January 2020, paying his family $275,000.
In a press release Friday evening, the county’s Office of the State’s Attorney announced the lawsuit had been settled. The statement said that $220,000 was paid on behalf of the two officers involved and $55,000 on behalf of the Montgomery County Board of Education.
The agreement stipulated that “the parties released each other from all claims with no admission of liability,” the statement said. Payment will originate from the county’s “self insurance fund,” according to the news release.
Body-camera footage of the event showed officers screaming at the 5-year-old, handcuffing him and instructing his mother on how to beat him. Revelation of the incident led to new legislation from the Montgomery County Council.
An attorney for the family said Friday night he was not ready to comment on the matter.
A spokeswoman for the county police department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a text message to Bethesda Beat on Friday, Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Chris Cram said that the school district “is aware that the matter has reached a resolution and we wish the best for the student and family as they and we are now about to begin a new school year.” He said MCPS has “no other information beyond knowledge of a completed resolution.”
The incident in question occurred Jan. 14, 2020. The 5-year-old boy had walked away from his elementary school, prompting administrators to call police, who confronted him less than a quarter-mile from the school and escorted him back.
According to officers’ body camera footage, over the next hour, as the boy became increasingly upset, the officers called him names such as “little beast” and screamed within inches of his face, mocking his cries, while school district employees watched. The assistant principal at the time, Justine Pfeiffer, can be seen in body camera footage laughing.
Later, after the boy’s mother arrived, the officers encouraged her to “beat” him to keep him in line and coached her on how to do it without getting in trouble, according to the video.
The incident was not disclosed to county or school district leaders until a year later when Bethesda Beat reported about it in January 2021 after the family filed a lawsuit. Body-camera footage of the incident was released about two months later, after Bethesda Beat, county officials and community advocates filed formal requests for it.
The case sparked debate throughout the county about the police department’s role in school discipline and interactions with children. It also drew attention from international media outlets.
When the two officers confronted the boy near the school, they were immediately stern with him, according to the body-camera video, and became increasingly aggressive as the boy got more upset.
One of the officers, Kevin Christmon, grabbed the boy’s arm and escorted him into a police car.
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 became upset and cried as the officers forcefully told him to “shut that noise up.”
When he was seated, the second officer, Dionne Holliday, was shown screaming five times 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.
Some school employees can be heard on the video discussing the boy’s disciplinary history with officers.
After the boy’s mother arrived, the officers brought them both into a conference room. After a brief conversation in which they told the mother she can legally “beat” the child, an officer placed one handcuff around the boy’s wrist and put both of the boy’s hands behind his back.
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 distress. It also alleged violations of the Maryland Declaration of Rights and negligence against the Montgomery County school board.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Richard Jordan dismissed most counts of the lawsuit in January but largely reversed the decision in April.
After an internal investigation, both officers involved remained employed. The department has said that the officers faced discipline, but has declined to say what it was.
Pfeiffer was placed on administrative leave briefly by MCPS, 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 be provided with body cameras.
The law 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.