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First Week of School Didn’t Go as Planned for This Family

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Curtis Elliott Jr. and Dani Elliott said that the school sending a police officer to their home put their son, Isaiah, in danger. (Dani Elliott)
By Jaclyn Peiser
Washington Post

Dani Elliott was at work last month when her 12-year-old son’s vice principal called with alarming news: A police officer was on the way to her house — all because her son had played with a toy gun during his virtual art class.

Elliott says she was terrified, especially considering her son is Black.

“I never thought: ‘You can’t play with a Nerf gun in your own home because somebody may perceive it as a threat and call the police on you,’” Elliott said.

Elliott’s son, Isaiah, was later suspended for five days and now has a record with the El Paso County (Colo.) Sheriff’s Office and a mark on his school disciplinary paperwork saying he brought a “facsimile of a firearm to school” — even though he was in his own home doing a virtual class. The “gun” was obviously a toy, painted black and green with “Zombie Hunter” on the side.

Elliott lashed out at the school, arguing that it was irresponsible to call police given the frequency of police violence against Black people.

“With the cultural events going on right now, especially for young African Americans, you calling the police and telling them that he could have a gun, you put his life in jeopardy,” Elliott said.

Elliott said she thinks the school doesn’t understand the possible consequences.

In a statement on its Facebook page, Grand Mountain School said that while there has been false information spreading online, it can’t provide any details on what happened, citing privacy laws.

“We never have or ever will condone any form of racism or discrimination,” the statement said. “Safety will always be number one for our students and staff. We follow board policies and safety protocols consistently, whether we are in-person or distance learning.”

The incident happened Aug. 27, the third day of distance learning at Grand Mountain School. Elliott learned of the trouble when Isaiah’s art teacher emailed, saying she had notified the vice principal that her son, who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, was distracted and playing with a gun, which she believed was fake. Elliott responded, assuring the teacher that it was a toy gun and that she would talk to her son about keeping it away during class.

But the vice principal had already called a school resource officer to review a recording of the class. The officer watched footage of Isaiah and another boy pointing the toy gun at the computer screen, according to a police report, obtained by KOAA.

The other boy was a classmate who was studying at Elliott’s house at the time; deputies later visited his home as well, according to the police report. KDVR reported that the boy is believed to have also received a five-day suspension.

Isaiah Elliott’s toy gun. (Photo courtesy of Dani Elliott)

When officers arrived at Elliott’s home, her husband, Curtis, let them in. They explained to Isaiah that if he brought a toy gun to school, they could file criminal charges.

But when Isaiah’s father viewed body camera footage of the tape from his son’s class, he said it only showed Isaiah sitting on the couch, moving the green toy gun from one side to the other — not waving it as the teacher alleged.

Over the following few days, Elliott and her husband spoke with the school’s principal and vice principal, as well as a district superintendent. They would not budge on Isaiah’s suspension and disciplinary record.

“I said: ‘Black children cannot have that sort of thing on their record. You are reducing his chances at success,’” Elliott said she told school administrators.

She also questioned why the school called the police before notifying her and her husband. Elliott said that the vice principal said their son’s safety was the school’s top priority. But Elliott argued that calling the police actually put Isaiah’s life at risk, noting that he is the same age as Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed in 2014 by police in Cleveland while holding a BB gun.

Isaiah was traumatized by the experience, she said. “He was in tears when the police came,” Elliott said. “He was very scared. He said: ‘Mommy, I had butterflies in my stomach. I was scared and thought I was going to jail.’”

Elliott also criticized the school for recording the students in class. She said the school didn’t get permission from parents.

In a statement, Grand Mountain School acknowledged that the digital platform the school uses for virtual teaching has a recording function. “During our first week of school, we were still becoming familiar with the platform. It is not our current practice to record classes at this time. Parents will be notified if that changes,” the statement said.

Elliott and her husband, who both work for the military, decided to pull their son out of the school after the incident, placing him on a wait list for a charter school. She said she hopes his next school better understands and works with students with ADHD.

“I wish the world could see my son through the way I see him. He’s funny, compassionate, caring, goofy, and yeah, he gets distracted easily, but he’s a kid,” Elliott said. “I hate that the world doesn’t see him that way. It’s not fair.”