Bad Behaviour, continued: Eight Year Old Autistic Girl Arrested For Battery

Yes, you read that title right.

Back in January, Evelyn Towry, an autistic third grader living in Idaho, just wanted to wear her cow hoodie[1. Just in case this is a US-specific slang term, a hoodie is a knit jacket with a hood.] and go to a birthday party and eat cake with her fellow students. Her teacher decided, for reasons that remain nebulous, that Evelyn wouldn’t be allowed to go until she took off her hoodie. Evelyn didn’t want to, so her teacher left her in a classroom with two staffers to guard her. She decided she wanted to leave, and a ‘scuffle’ ensued when the staffers tried to restrain her.

It ended with Evelyn’s arrest. For battery. The school claims that she ‘inappropriately touched’ the staff members who attempted to prevent her from leaving the classroom. Now, Evelyn and her parents are suing the school and the sheriff’s department. The suit is using the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) as grounds, arguing that the school denied accommodations for Evelyn.

Just for reference, here is the dreaded cow hoodie:

Evelyn Towry, a young white girl with blonde hair, wearing a cow hoodie and playing in the snow.

(Image via Popehat)

Clearly a menace to public decency and birthday cakes everywhere!

I am trying to imagine, here, on what planet an eight year old girl could reasonably be arrested for battery. This case is a pretty classic example of a situation where people obviously lacked adequate training and compassion, and a little girl suffered for it. I have no idea why the teacher felt so strongly about Evelyn’s hoodie, but I see no reason that she should have been barred from going to a birthday party simply because she wanted to keep her jacket on. If there had been a situation where it was appropriate to separate her from her fellow students and make her wait in a classroom with school staff members, surely those staff members should have been provided with the training to sit in the classroom with her without ending up in a physical altercation; Evelyn may have had a meltdown, may well have been ‘flailing,’ but to say that she was ‘inappropriately touching’ staff members stretches the boundaries of believability.

And the sheriff’s department most certainly should not have taken Evelyn into custody when they responded to the school’s call. They should have politely informed the school that taking terrified children to the police station is not within their job description, and that the school should call her parents, if anyone, to address the issue.

Spring Towry said she got to the school Friday just in time to see 54-pound Evelyn — who was diagnosed at age 5 with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism[2. Do not even get me started on functioning labels and how much I hate them. -ed] — being walked to a police car with two officers at her side.

“She started screaming ‘Mommy, I don’t want to go! What are batteries? What are batteries?'” Towry said. “She didn’t even know what she was arrested for.” (source)

Being taken into police custody is traumatic enough when you do understand what is going on. I can’t even imagine what it would be like for Evelyn, who was probably off balance and upset already because her routines were disturbed. The prosecutor put the kibosh on the case, so Evelyn won’t be going to court to answer these utterly absurd charges, but what if the prosecutor had suspended all rational thought and gone ahead with it? Can you imagine her in court, responding to these charges? Perhaps the prosecutor would have offered a plea deal.

I have said it before, and I will keep saying it:

Teachers who have received no training in working with disabled students shouldn’t be assigned to classrooms with disabled students, yet they are.

It’s notable that the staff members restrained Evelyn hard enough to leave bruises and yet they are not being charged with battery.

ETA: After this post went up, The Seattle Times published an article indicating that Evelyn Towry’s individual education plan (IEP), in addition to being drafted without input from her or her family, ‘included police intervention as a course of action if the child misbehaved.’

27 thoughts on “Bad Behaviour, continued: Eight Year Old Autistic Girl Arrested For Battery

  1. You’d be suprised at the training TA’s don’t have. I was considered a fantastic TA because before I started I worked with kids with autism ….my brother. I started the summer before college. I didn’t get restraint training (years later) until I had a student who was violent towards us and other students and the day long class was offered. We only restrained until he’d calm down and then take him to our sensory room to figure out what he needed.

    Teachers at my alma mater, considered one of the best schools in the country for teaching and special education, if they aren’t in the special education program get exactly one class dealing with educating students with disabilities. You can imagine the feeling my husband felt when he realized during his student teaching that other teachers were coming to him for advice.

  2. Oh my god.

    I’m not surprised, which is saddening.

    My mom is an assistant with “special ed” classes ranging from pre-school to elementary and now high school, and with students who have varying levels of communication. (She says they have low IQs officially, I say they may be “normal,” they just can’t communicate the way testers want, so they wil languish in a home after school.)

    She treats them all with respect, even the ones that fight her. She’s never lifted a hand, she’s had the training to restrain a student without leaving bruises.

    Some of her coworkers have not.

    I remember an incident where the kids (elementary age) were going on a field trip and another assistant yelled at an autistic student because he wouldn’t let her put his jacket on, she forced it on him, despite his protests.

    I am so glad that none of my mom’s students have been arrested – there is one that has actually assaulted students and teachers (“she doesn’t mean it” say the people who baby her. “She’s pissed off” says my mom). Mom knows how to control her so she doesn’t touch other people, but mom doesn’t work with her anymore, so…

    Back to this case – I think the hoodie was an excuse (though in every school I’ve been to, barring uni, hats have been banned, but with a hoodie, it can easily be removed), the teacher may not have liked her, or wanted her in the party, thinking erroneously that she would be “bad” during the party.

  3. As the parent of a child with autism:
    What kind of person messes with a happy autistic kid? If the cow hoody is keeping her happy and feeling secure, why would they consider removing it? All I can think of is power, that they wanted to assert their power over her. And conformism, even though it would remove her sense of security and stability. That just wasn’t a battle worth fighting.

  4. I think besides training on how to handle disabled students, teachers need a lot of common sense 101. Or maybe I am writing from the wrong perspective, being from Europe, but here, a student doesn’t get the police called on them for this. Is it an offshoot from “zero tolerance” or what?

  5. I know of several schools which have banned hoodies altogether, for whatever reason that I don’t pretend to understand. I suppose that could be the situation in this school, but even then she could get an accommodation.

  6. Ugh. FWIW, I use hoodies sometimes as a means of reducing sensory input that might otherwise become overwhelming.

    (Also RE hoodie possibly being US slang, my British partner understands the word to refer to both the shirt and the person who wears it, though the latter is derogatory.)

  7. In the UK hoodies are associated with yobs (unruly kids) — actually, the term hoodie is sometimes used to mean yob — and some shopping centres have banned kids walking around with them up, because they partly obscure the face and are often worn for threatening effect, but not banned the hoodies (garments) altogether. Most schools have uniforms and they rarely include hoodies.

    There has been an upsurge in kids getting arrested over really quite petty things here, sometimes when reacting to bullying or sticking up for other kids, which has caused some controversy as such things would have been dealt with internally, but arresting an autistic child for reacting to a known source of distress obviously means the teachers don’t have a clue, or don’t care. Then again, at my so-called special school, this kind of behaviour would have been treated as nuisance acting-up and would have resulted in physical force (and very likely violence) being used, but then again, even though kids were placed at this school by local education departments, they used methods which would have ended careers in hours in a proper school.

  8. What. The hell. Is wrong with people???

    You don’t arrest 8 year olds. Period.

    Autism isn’t slang for “undersized criminal mastermind”. Ever.

    Autism isn’t an excuse to treat people like something you scraped off the bottom of your shoe. Ever.

    I hope that her parents sue the school district, the teacher personally, anyone who laid a hand on her (restraint can kill. It’s not ok) and the police department for even CONSIDERING arresting an 8 year old. WTF, she’s EIGHT.

    Also, I like the cow hoodie.

  9. Why am I not surprised?

    I talked to a friend whose son is autistic. The kid lives part time in an institution specifically for autistic kids, so you’d think the people there are trained in handling them, but you’d be wrong.

    My friend’s kid doesn’t like hugs. It’s the touch-thing that makes him uncomfortable. So he specifically says he doesn’t want hugs. One of the professionals continuously ignores this and hugs him anyway, making him even more adverse to hugs. His mother, my friend, hasn’t hugged her son in years, because the carer has completely ruined his sense of boundary values.

    Same carer also loves to touch his gloriously red hair. And since he hates being touched, and his hair is apparently what makes her touch him, he now hates his hair and constantly keep it covered with a baseball cap. He cannot exist calmly without knowing that his hair is covered.

    As a consequence of that the institution has ordered all carers to make sure that his cap comes off at bedtime. Result: the poor kid spends the first several hours of every night tossing and turning and exhausting himself to sleep rather than just… you know… tucking in and falling asleep.

    Why are these things done? Because in the treatment of autistics as well as others with cognitive differences the goal is not to help them, but to make the seem less different from the neurotypical majority. That means you may not be allowed to avoid hugs, and you may not be allowed to sleep with your baseball cap on, and if you attempt to do these things, they will be treated as if they are mild phobias to be cured by exposure therapy rather than the sensory overload stress factors that they really are.

    While the police has not been called on my friend’s kid, I think it’s plenty bad enough that a place, which supposedly specializes in autistic kids, forcefully and knowingly triggers so many stress factors all for the sake of imitating a normalcy he can never attain anyway.

    And I write this from Europe (Denmark specifically) as well, btw, so Astrid’s slightly less negative impression of things over here is not a general thing. Just for reference 🙂

  10. Jemima Aslana – I know not all autistic kids have the same symptoms and reactions to things, but I thought being not wanting to be touched was pretty constant. (Maybe mom can touch me… friends can…)

    I’d rather assume that and not hug an autistic child and be wrong – they love hugs! – than hug someone who hates it. (I do not like hugs. They are awkward.)

  11. Kaitlyn, as an outset for me personally it is not that I don’t want to be touched. It’s that touch is a sensory input, and I need to manage my resources to be able to handle sensory input for an entire day. The more inputs I can eliminate, the more spoons I have for being… well… attentive, and fun, and friendly.

    The more unexpected a sensory input is, the more spoons it will swallow. A hug initiated(wanted) by me and given to a person I have know for two days I would meet does not swallow any spoons. A hug initiated by me given to someone I unexpectedly met might swallow a spoon. A hug initiated by someone else will swallow more. An outright unwanted hug initiated by someone else will swallow even more. A surprise hug from behind, and therefore from a person not yet identified can be paralyzing and traumatizing and can drain all my remaining spoons for that day. If I’m already close to maxing on my spoon use all of those spoon drain-levels will go up.

    As you can see it varies quite a lot.

    The thing is: I want to be touched. I have sexual urges. Sometimes I wanna hump that gorgeous fella’s leg. Well… I wanna hump more than just his leg lol I want that intimacy – I still have a very human need for that, despite being autistic. It’s just that I need to stay in control of who, when, how much, how long, how often, because otherwise my spoon usage goes through the roof and I’ll be useless for days.

    The safer I feel with a person, the more we can touch without expending any spoons. So it’s a liiiiiittle more complicated than just not wanting to be touched.

  12. @hoodie discussion: I’m not British but have been going to university in Britain in one form or another for six years now and my main form of experience with hoodies is university hoodies – student societies will often sell them and you see them quite a bit. As a result, I consider hoodies to be somewhat geeky studentwear (and have a number of that sort in my own closet, as well.) Maybe it’s a university area thing?

    @Jemima Aslana: to be honest, a lot of the “treatment” for autistic kids I hear about flat-out terrifies me because so often it seems geared at forcing them to act like NT kids without looking into why they are acting the way they are or whether they can’t be happy and healthy and successful without pretending NTness in that situation. All of the “we must train them to make eye contact” and “we must train them to pretend to like hugs” stuff. Ironically, given common dialogue around autism *rolls eyes*, I often find what NTs write about autism to be shockingly unempathetic – worst contender I heard of was someone talking about a child’s “irrational phobia of loud noises.” Because it’s not as if hypersensitivity makes that sort of thing genuinely painful, oh no, if the NT doesn’t experience that sort of thing it doesn’t exist.

    *coughs* sorry, this topic makes me furious. Especially because although I didn’t have any of that sort of thing as a child, I *have* put a lot of effort into constantly passing as NT over the years, and with the benefit of hindsight I can see how things like trying to force myself to make eye contact or repress stimming and constantly checking my body language to try to make sure it’s within NT norms have made me less functional overall. So I keep thinking “but why would you DO that to a kid?”

    @actual post: responding to this last because I still can’t think of anything to say other than WTF WHAT THE HELL PEOPLE WHAT WERE YOU *THINKING*. That poor little girl. D:

  13. Thanks for writing about this story, s.e. smith. Infuriating. The hoodie is quite adorable, though.

    About hugging: Like anything, it varies a ton among autistic people. I think that one common feature, however, is that we prefer to have some measure of control over the hugging. Often this means wanting notification about being hugged, only wanting to be hugged by particular individuals, etc. A few weeks ago I was at Autreat, and there were plenty of hugs there. But people *asked* each other if they wanted to be hugged before doing it, and if someone said no, there wasn’t a big deal made or anything. No one assumed that not wanting to be hugged meant that a person didn’t value the relationship, or wasn’t sad to be leaving Autreat, or anything like that. But auties aren’t universally against hugging. I have a good autie friend who likes to hug her friends as a standard part of hello/goodbye greetings, which took some getting used to for me but is now fine. Generally speaking, I think the Autreat rules (which are official) work well. Don’t hug or touch someone without permission, with the exceptions of people who have a relationship in which that sort of touch is typical. You don’t need explicit permission to hold hands with your partner if that’s what you habitually do. But for people whom you don’t know so well, asking permission just makes sense. As with a lot of things, I think the Autreat rules would apply very nicely in real-world settings. At the very least, someone working with autistic people should be aware of these basics.

  14. This is so upsetting. (TW for mental institutions and loss of autonomy)

    (Background: I am mentally ill, training to be a social worker, and have a placement/internship next year at a program that does restraint training, I also feel ambivalent about this last part, but for this comment we’ll put this aside)

    I’ve had orientation for my upcoming internship this past week. We spent half a day today learning about ways to physically deflect a patient who might start attacking us or someone else, and then putting them into a hold meant specifically to not harm them, and to allow them the most autonomy possible. But before we did that we spent almost all of the day yesterday talking ALL ABOUT de-esclating a situation before one would ever need to touch the other person at all, emphasizing over and over again how if you’re doing your job right, there will rarely be a physical situation you are in. One of the main points that I tried to emphasize (as a learning participant) was how many fights/power struggles/whatever are started by clinicians/staff trying to exert power over someone else, for stupid fucking shit.

    It just makes me so angry that teachers (and social workers, and psychiatrists, and “helping professions” people who should know better) do these types of power trips. And then, and THEN to have these staff members putting hands on a child? In what realm is this appropriate?
    The training my internship gives out (hopefully, if people actually listen to it) means that they take the care and well-being of adults who are currently attacking someone else more seriously than these teachers took the well-being of an 8 year old who wanted to eat cake (I assume, maybe she’s more of an ice cream gal). Fuck this noise.

  15. Thanks for answering my question Sarah and Jemima.

    The unwanted touching using up spoons makes a lot of sense – especially if it’s unexpected!

    Sarah – I wish the Auties retreat rules were everywhere – you can tap my shoulder if I’ve got my ipod on and don’t hear you, but otherwise do not touch me unless I know you.

    It’s quite odd – I just realized that I don’t know the last time I was made to hug my loved ones. I can’t think of the last time someone touched me at all (aside from doctors). It’s not bad, it’s just odd. But I do love my friends and family.

  16. Autistic woman here, I find this to be so infuriating.
    Routine and the ability to be comfortable is so important for autistic spectrum individuals, our ability to be allowed to do certain things in order to remain more comfortable and in control of the situations in our lives are incredibly important. Plus we are generally ridiculously stubborn, one stressed aspies/auties will generally get stuck in a ‘black and white’ mode of thinking.

    This is clearly the case that happened here, the girl set on going to the party was stressed and was not allowed to go, the hoodie was a symbol of comfort and routine to her and so was important that she be allowed to wear it.

    This is totally outrageous.
    Also you don’t touch KIDS. Particularly autistic ones, as the stress brought on by forceful contact can have lasting psychiatric repercussions.

  17. Wow, don’t know what to say. That is [redacted per comments policy]. I would think the school and parents would have had discussions about what to do if their daughter became overly upset. Not call the cops. Call the parents. I don’t know anyone with autism but I have ADD and used to get wound up. My father always talked to the teachers and school admin about it. Anytime I got going they knew they could call him and he would take care of it! They would tell me they were going to call and I needed to find a quite spot. My dad was a big man. It always worked I stopped being nuts an got away from everyone so they could still learn and I would regroup. I did this with my oldest daughter when in gradeschool. It helped emensly
    I think this is going to really mess the kid up worse is will not feel comfortable talking to police later if she is In trouble and needs them.!!!!!
    Ok I’m done ranting. It’s time to send an email to the school!
    I know it would not fit I this situation she but the point is the parents

  18. A local SLP who works with ASD kids supposedly said that SCHOOLS show all the classic signs of autism:
    1) poor communication
    2) lack of empathy
    3) rigid adherence to meaningless routines

    I read in another article about this case that the school was “trying to get the parents’ attention” by calling the police. The parents contend that the IEP was developed without their knowledge.

    This whole episode reminds me of one in Cupertino, CA where the teacher sat on a child’s chest and smeared a burrito on her face to help with her food aversion. Poorly trained personnel taking out frustration on the ASD child.

    IDEA is a very well meaning law and explicitly says that specialized training for teachers can be included in IEPs, but very few schools even attempt to give any specialized training to teachers and other personnel about how to work with autistic kids. (And I’m certainly not saying there is a generic way to work with autistic kids – each one should have their individual needs considered.)

  19. Ugh. A lot of teachers have a tendancy to power trip in my experience, and I was one of the “good” kids at school. Or they’ll have the attitude that if you don’t do EXACTLY what they want then you must be one of the “bad” kids and they will do anything they can to take you down a peg. Even standing up for your rights or asking where exactly it said that in the school rules got you in trouble at my school. I can’t imagine how an 8 year old would handle that sort of blatant violation of her rights.

  20. A local SLP who works with ASD kids supposedly said that SCHOOLS show all the classic signs of autism:
    1) poor communication
    2) lack of empathy
    3) rigid adherence to meaningless routines

    This should really read “they display the worst stereotypes of autistic behaviour”, because while autistic children do have problems with empathy, they are generally not brutal or malicious about it; the cruelty described here is quite deliberate. They might be well able to empathise with others (near or far) in a distressed situation, but less able to consider the effect of their actions on others.

    When it comes to the pointless routines, schools will often enforce rules when they don’t matter but fail to enforce them when they might be of benefit. An example I remember from my boarding school was the rule that you didn’t go into a dormitory other than your own. When you were found in someone else’s dorm harmlessly chatting away to someone, you’d be chucked out; when you asked a member of staff to chuck out someone who was in your dorm causing trouble, they’d say they couldn’t always fight your battles for you.

  21. It’s rather depressing to see Linda’s comments go through on this site, I have to say. A lot of ableist ideas about autistic people there–“meaningless routines,” a “lack” of empathy, etc. It’s worth noting that many of the professionals who promote the “autistic people lack empathy idea”–which has been challenged by both scientists and self-advocates (or both), BTW–show such a lack of empathy for *autistic people.*

    I also can’t agree with Indigo Jo’s statement about how “autistic children have problems with empathy,” and would prefer that people be more specific about what they mean here. The false statement that autistic people lack empathy is part of a very pernicious, medicalized, and stereotyped discourse that is used to dehumanize autistic people on a daily basis.

  22. Dear Linda

    If I gave you a book about maths in a language you do not understand. You try to read it. You really, really try. But you just don’t manage to understand a single word. Does this mean you’re horribly bad at maths?

    No. You are, however, bad at the language the book is written in.

    If I tell you that sometimes neurotypical interpersonal communication, and especially the non-verbal kind, is a foreign language to us autistics. Then you might safely presume that there will be a lot of things we do not understand. Not because we’re bad at those things, but because we’re bad at the language they are communicated in.

    Just like I’m not bad at maths just because I wouldn’t grasp a word of a Russian or Greek book of maths, I do not lack empathy for your pain just because your pain is communicated in a language I do not understand.

    Of your three points only number one is semi-valid. The autistics are not the ones with the poor communication. It is the relations between neurotypicals and non-neurotypicals that are fraught with poor communication. This is, however, more often than not the fault of neurotypicals, who completely refuse the option of communicating in any other way than Neurotypicalese Vernacular.

    Autistics lack skills to communicate in many and diverse ways. Neurotypicals often just lack the willingness. There’s a difference, and we are the losers.

    We are also very often quite aware of our inability to communicate in Neurotypicalese, but there’s not much we can do about it, thus causing us a lot of frustration, increasing our need for stress relief (eg. “stimming”), you know… those meaningless routines that are so meaningless because they give us the notion of safety and familiarity. Yep, completely meaningless. Sure.

  23. nthing the response here. “Autistic people lack empathy” is an extremely horrible and dehumanising stereotype dressed up as scientific fact. And, you know, I’ve read some of the studies that purport to show this and can figure out approximately twelve other, less horrible explanations for their results, some of which follow really obviously from the symptoms of autism. In fact, I’m not sure how you mean to show *anyone* lacks empathy because it’s such an incredibly vague term.

    Ironically, using certain definitions of empathy I may actually have something of a case of hyperempathy going on, and I’ve heard of other autistic people with similar issues. E.g. emotional mirroring, where I start to experience the emotions I am attributing to another person, or the serious serious trouble I have with other people’s opinions temporarily overwriting mine, or other things I don’t really want to go into detail about right now. But, you know, obviously I’m lying because we’re all cold and unable to realise other people are people with their own separate thoughts and feelings…

    I *have* often felt that a lot of NTs trying to deal with autistics exhibit some of the worst stereotypes ascribed to autism, and that in fact those stereotypes might be something of a case of projection. For instance, I often marvel at how some people have such trouble imagining that an autistic person may experience things differently from them, may have problems with things they find easy, may find things comforting and vital that they find ridiculous, etc. E.g. what I mentioned in my first comment – characterising an autistic child as having an “irrational phobia of loud noises” when it is extremely well known that autism often has hypersensitivity as a component. I’m guessing this is what you meant, but I’d prefer it if you could frame your argument in such a way that did not perpetuate those stereotypes.

  24. A personal anecdote I like to use in countering the autistic-people-lack-empathy myth is from when my much-beloved cat died three years ago. I was extremely distressed and inconsolable, and pretty much crying almost constantly for the day after I got the news that she was going to die. My (autistic) partner, who didn’t know my cat, eventually started crying as well due to feeling my own pain. If that’s not empathy, what the hell is? Yet when I have related this story to various people holding bigoted ideas about autistic people, they have twisted themselves into logical contortions trying to ablesplain how my partner wasn’t *really* displaying empathy. This particular stereotype, unfortunately supported by a number of prestigious scientists, is so pervasive that everything autistic people do is filtered through it–much like a number of other pernicious autism stereotypes. Stimming is another example. Our hand-flapping and whatnot is classified as unacceptable, when non-autistic people’s pencil twirling, etc., is not. (Even though many autistic people actually adapt more socially acceptable stims as a result of harassment to be normal!) Our routines and body movements are hence classified as “meaningless,” whereas the behaviors of neurotypicals are not. (Think getting coffee every morning, or, in the social realm, the need to exchange pleasantries in every social interaction.)

  25. My son (now almost 20, and a student at an engineering college), who is diagonsed with Asperger syndrome, used to show pretty much the same behavior as this little girl. I used to describe it as being like a stuck drawer: if you kept pushing, he just got more stuck. And, just like with a stuck drawer, your first impulse is to push harder, and, just like with a stuck drawer, that is exactly what will _not_ get you where you want to go. Learning to deal with him was (and still is) very educational.

    I think the root of the problem is the whole principle on which schools are based: they are set up as factories which require everybody to be one way, i.e., the way the schools need them to be. Individual needs are a problem to be eliminated — as the German proverb goes, the nail that sticks up will get hammered down.

    So it’s not just autistic kids who suffer. It’s any kid who differs from the standard. Kids who aren’t able to be as organized or as “mature” as the school expects. Kids who aren’t as good at filtering out noise and distractions (and so can’t hear what the teacher thinks he/she is saying.) Etc. This ends up meaning that something like half the kids in school are A Problem in one way or another.

  26. this is rediculous… its very sad to me that the staff members would have this child arrested and the cops would go through with arresting her.. it’s sad to see our world come to this…

  27. As an autistic woman, I’d like to say that this is soo messed up.

    She’s 8 yrs old for God sakes

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