Fake Gun, Real Suspension: A Frustrated Mom Speaks on Racial Profiling

An interview with Dani Elliott

By Chandra Thomas Whitfield

Dani Elliott is fired up and fighting back after her 12-year-old son, Isaiah, was suspended from school for five days for goofing off with a toy gun inside their home.

It happened on Aug. 27 during an art class the 7th grader attended via Zoom. Isaiah briefly flashed the black, neon green and orange gun with the words “Zombie Hunter” printed on the side of it across his computer screen. Elliott says Isaiah’s teacher at Grand Mountain School in Colorado Springs, Colo., contacted her via email expressing concern. But Elliott assured her that the gun was fake. Elliott thought the situation ended there, but once the school’s vice principal got involved the situation escalated.

The Widefield School District immediately handed down a disciplinary decision — without ever speaking to her, her husband or her son directly — and also sent El Paso County Sheriff's Office deputies to their home. She says the deputies, who also work as school resource officers, threatened Isaiah with criminal charges although the district’s weapons policies explicitly refer to incidents on campus or at school eventsnot at personal residences.

Elliott and her husband say the school district violated the rights of their son, who has ADHD. She spoke with The Crisis about the ordeal that left her son in tears and disrupted his schooling. A Widefield School District spokesperson said district leaders could not comment on the incident due to privacy laws, but said they are working with the family to resolve their concerns in hopes of moving “forward as a district, as a community and as a society.”

Clearly, you and your husband are upset about what occurred. What was the timeline of events?

The art teacher emailed me at 10 a.m. and I emailed her back at 11 a.m. As soon as I saw the email, I said I can assure you it was just a toy. At 12:06 p.m. the police were dispatched to the school. At 1:41 p.m. the vice principal calls to tell me that the police are on their way to my home. At 2:41 p.m. the police arrived. No one walking this earth can tell me that they were concerned about my son's safety or his well-being.

What are your main concerns about what happened?

I think that what the school did was a gross overreach of their jurisdiction into the privacy of my own home. I definitely feel as if it was an invasion of privacy for them [to] illegally [record] my son. I believe it was very negligent for them to call the police to my home after admitting that they knew it was a toy gun. I believe that if at any point they felt as if my son was in imminent danger, they would not have waited four and a half hours to have police respond to the home. They would have notified the parents immediately.

Do you consider the school and school district solely responsible for what occurred?

I think the deputies also played a role in this — the school resource officers. Because on the bodycam footage, they admit they did not have any grounds to press any sort of criminal charges due to the virtual learning environment and due to the fact that they knew it was a toy prior to coming to the house to investigate. However, later on in the bodycam footage, you'll notice the deputies threatened my son three times with charges, but [say] they're not going to do it at this time. They're going to have it be a lesson learned, but if anything like this were to occur in the future that he would be facing charges.

How did your son react to the officers?

He was crying, he was in tears, he was very scared. He told me, “Mommy, I had butterflies in my stomach.” He thought he was going to go to jail and this is his first interaction with law enforcement. So, he was just super scared, especially considering everything going on in the world right now. Because, as you know, as parents of minorities, we have to have these talks with him. It’s not that we want to teach him to fear the police, but we want him to be aware that these things are real, these events are happening. This is reality for a lot of people and I think he learned that; I think it confirmed that. It really hit home for him that day. So, I think this is something that's going to stick with him for a long time.

Are you concerned that this situation will affect him long-term?

Nobody wants their kids to be bullied. The first couple of weeks were pretty rough on him. There were definitely a lot of emotions of being overwhelmed and upset and scared and things like that, but he has been hanging out with his best friend, his grandpa, while I've been taking care of business. [Grandpa] has been giving him all of the ice cream he wants. So, he is currently happy again and back to himself, laughing, you know, just getting his mind off things.

How about you as parents, how have you been holding up since this took place?

I'd be lying if I said it was easy. I've probably had six mental breakdowns since the start of this, you know, I've been under an immense amount of stress, an immense amount of pressure. I had to take two weeks from work to deal with not only finding [other] schools for my son, but to help him throughout his suspension to deal with finding legal representation, talking to different advocacy groups, doing lots of research and things like that. So, it's definitely taken a toll on my mental health for sure. Like I said, it just truly breaks my heart that they can't see my son the way that I see him, and that he could even be perceived as a threat for playing with a toy in the privacy of his own home.

What role, if any, do you think race played in this situation? Do you feel he was targeted as a young Black male?

Absolutely. And the older my son gets, the scarier it is, especially with the current events that are going on and not necessarily [just] current events, history too. Right now, there's a lot of racism being exposed throughout several different institutions: throughout the Department of Justice, throughout politics, the White House and different things like that. People think it's O.K. to be openly racist and for me it's terrifying, not only raising him during this specific time, but also the older he gets. He's only 12, but he's about five-foot-six, he has about a size 10-and-a-half foot. He has a mustache, he has a deep voice; most people think he's about 16 or 17. He's perceived as a lot older than he is, but the mentality is still that of a 12-year-old because he is still a kid.

What bothers you most about this case?

This has truly been a terrible nightmare for all of us. My plan, my original plan, was just to advocate for my son and to spread awareness so that another child or another family wouldn't have to face a situation like this, especially African-American children in today's climate with the racial divide and everything else like that going on. But advocating and spreading awareness led to something much bigger than myself. The more I sit here reflecting, I see that what happened to my son was just a symptom of deeper-rooted issues, systematic issues; the criminalization of children, children getting records before the age of 18, therefore impacting their future; children being held to the same standards as adults. Children with disabilities, learning disabilities are being discriminated against, they’re being labeled as bad seeds over things that are beyond their control. Then you get into the invasion of privacy piece, you get into the schools overstepping their jurisdiction and trying to mandate what's allowed in our homes and what's not. You know, at what point is enough?

So you have decided to withdraw your son from the school?

Yes. Some new developments throughout the duration of his suspension contributed to the decision to pull him from the school. One of the terms of his suspension was that he was not allowed to log on to the virtual classroom, therefore, denying him the right to teacher instruction and depriving him of his education, [and doing that] knowing that he has ADHD. The other factor was that his teacher had known since last year about his ADHD and still that was never even a factor that was considered when they chose to suspend him.

Finally, what are your plans moving forward in regards to what happened with your son?

I plan on advocating for children across the world. I have been speaking with multiple organizations and politicians to hopefully get policies changed and to get bills passed, so that not only can there be clear-cut guidance between the virtual learning environment, as opposed to in-school learning, but also to have teachers receive more training on cultural competence and cultural awareness expressions in a society. Just because it doesn't affect them or they don't experience these things first hand doesn't diminish the fact that this is a reality for a lot of people and a lot of their students. So, there are several different things that I'd like to see happen and I don't plan on stopping until something is done because our children deserve better.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield is an award-winning multimedia journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Essence, NBCNews.com and The Huffington Post. She is a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow and host and producer of In The Gap, a recently launched podcast for In These Times magazine about pay discrimination and other challenges Black women experience on their jobs.

The Crisis magazine is a quarterly journal of politics, culture, civil rights and history that seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues facing African-Americans and other communities of color.

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