I’m fairly certain most Ottawa readers, and possibly many readers from other parts of the country – and the world – know about Daniel Ten Oever. He’s the nine-year-old autistic boy who was handcuffed at St. Jerome Catholic School after smashing a toilet tank lid and then throwing chairs around the principal’s office. I first heard about him through this Ottawa Citizen article on February 20. His parents, Dan Ten Oever and Stephanie Huck, are understandably upset over the incident. The account of the school and the police officer differ slightly from Daniel’s version of the story, but it has been agreed by all parties that Daniel was engaging in destructive and dangerous behaviour before being handcuffed.
Mr. Ten Oever and Ms. Huck are demanding all records regarding the school’s interactions with Daniel, and have refused to allow him to return to school until they receive and review the records. They are considering legal action. They are supported by the parents of an eleven-year-old boy who was handcuffed after the same behaviour, throwing a chair, and the parents of a fourteen-year-old boy who was charged with assault after attacking his principal in the hall of his school. He ran at the principal, and hit her with enough force to knock her over. He was approaching her aggressively a second time, while she was still on the ground, but was re-directed by the vice principal. He fled the scene, and later was coaxed by his grandfather to get in his car and come home. They are joined by a pair of heavy-hitters, both emotionally and legally: Restoring Justice, a group focused on creating public awareness on institutional child abuse, and Autism Ontario. Restoring Justice has already begun calling on parents of children with disabilities to come forward with any questionable treatment of their children by schools.
This whole story, and many other similar stories – heartbreaking. I feel sorry for Daniel’s parents, and all the parents like them, who struggle to give their children with special needs the care and education they require. I feel sorry for their beautiful boy, who faces a lifetime of trying so hard to understand and be understood – and every other Daniel out there. But, no matter how many times I think about the events that have led the family to this point, a question remains: what else could the school and the police have done?
St. Jerome has considerable experience dealing with Daniel. School staff have been trained in non-violent crisis prevention. Daniel somehow slipped out of their control, and they did what anyone would do when there is potential for a person to injure themselves or others: they summoned the help of the police. Restoring Dignity claims that the staff was improperly trained in de-escalating crises like the one Daniel was experiencing. How can they make this statement if they were not there to witness the staff’s attempts to help Daniel? Autism Ontario claims that “bad behaviour” by autistic children should not be “punished”. The police had no knowledge of Daniel’s issues or history. They obviously could not sit down for a heart-to-heart with people who know Daniel while the child raged and broke things and posed a threat to himself and others. Their first priority, in any situation, is to secure the environment. The restraining tools at the disposal of police officers? Handcuffs. They were not punishing Daniel. They were trying to keep him, and others, safe.
Fiona is nine. She’s small for her age, and has arms like Olive Oyl. But, if she wanted to, she could cause alot of damage. She could grievously injure a very large adult, if she were bent on it. What if the staff of St. Jerome continued trying to contain the situation until Daniel, or some other person, was injured? What if the police had arrived, attempted to calm him through other means, and were unsuccessful – resulting in tragedy, whether of small or large scale? I have a feeling that Daniel’s parents, Restoring Dignity and Autism Ontario would be singing a different tune – though no less angry or litigious.
I am not ignorant. I know that police officers are only human, that there are good cops and bad cops, that there have been – and will be – many cases of inexcusable police brutality. I know that some officers swagger around with their badge like it lifts them above the law. Bringing those people to accountability is important. But that’s not what happened here. A frightened, confused, disabled nine-year-old – and the people around him – needed to be safe, and the police were there to do it. The groups raising money to bring legal measures against the school and the police should consider putting that money into autism awareness and research, and increasing specially trained school staff numbers. That’s what will really help Daniel.