Boy in cop car brings concerns from parents of special needs students

“The district is losing the trust of families with special needs.”

More than 20 people made public comments similar to that one at the March 30 Bainbridge Island School District meeting about how 9-year-old Eli Woolsey, an Ordway Elementary School student, was treated when he left school Feb. 28 and was placed in the back of a police car until his mother arrived.

On March 27, body camera video of the incident was featured in a KING 5 TV news report and released on social media. That day, BISD posted a statement on the district website about the incident.

“Out of an abundance of caution and concern for the student’s safety — the Bainbridge Island Police Department was contacted to assist staff in returning the student to school safely. The video footage begins when the police arrive,” superintendent Peter Bang-Knudsen says. “An independent investigator has been retained to review the incident and the district’s response. Once the investigation is complete, we will provide additional information if we are able to do so.”

Before nearly 100 community members, parents and educators, Bang-Knudsen said it was difficult to watch the video. He added that the district is updating policies and training “so that we can best support students, staff and families when a potential crisis situation emerges. And more importantly, how we prevent those crises from emerging in the first place.”

Bang-Knudsen said the district would be diving further into understanding neurodiversity and will continue to develop de-escalation strategies and best practices for crisis intervention and create clear lines of communication for crisis response with police and district staff. Later this spring, the district will form a Special Education Parent Advisory Council to help parents with the process.

Both of the child’s parents commented about the treatment of people with disabilities and how the district responded to their son’s anxiety. Tim Woolsey said the district was aware of Eli’s diagnosis, yet a district employee told Eli he could control his situation. “Disabilities cannot be controlled; that’s what makes them disabilities.”

“My son doesn’t want to be this way,” Woolsey said. “People with disabilities are entitled to be treated with dignity.”

Lindsey Woolsey said she had been publicly vilified for making the incident public. “What is public is the issue of inappropriate use of the police.”

She said the 911 call recording made several things clear to her; the person who called the police did not know the protocols, policies or laws; or what restraint and isolation involving the police would lead to.

She said the caller did not know the definition of “imminent danger” and confirmed that the student was in a safe location with staff, and the child was not lost. The caller told 911 that the child was “not compliant,” and “we are panicking.”

“Somehow my son is not allowed to panic, despite being a child with a medical diagnosis,” Lindsey said.

Lindsey requested the district implement modern, evidence-based comprehensive training for staff and administrators and to “do better” at screening individuals in authority to ensure that they believe in disabilities.

Vanee Lyon, the mother of a 5-year-old with developmental disabilities, said “being mentally ill is not a crime. Having a mental crisis, especially as a child, is not a crime.”

Andy Ewing said, “I want each of you to imagine what must be going through the mind of a 9-year-old as they are forced into the back of a cop car by three cops and trusted district staff. I believe this incident is a watershed moment for special education issues in the district, and we want to know, ‘Are we a district that truly lives up to all the elements so carefully crafted in the District Improvement Plan? Or, are we a district that wants to look good on paper while papering over things we’d rather not put effort into improving?’”

Anna Marie Sack highlighted the recent Center for Educational Excellence Survey. She said the district-wide survey focused heavily on diversity, equity and inclusion and mentioned gender, race, cultural ethnicity and sexual orientation, but, “The disability category was not included, and what is worse, the school district did not notice. How are children with disabilities and their families supposed to feel included when they don’t have a voice in the inclusion survey?”

Meg Wolff commented about the word “non-compliant” that was used in the video. She said the word suggests that a wrong choice was made and that the child had both the ability and the capacity to meet the request but instead chose not to.

Lee Wyant shared his story about being locked in a school resource room closet 20 years ago, to calm down after having a tantrum. “I was terrified of the dark…I didn’t see a therapist for it until 2020. For the last 20 years, I have been living with this uneasy feeling in my gut that maybe there is something wrong with me.” He said he has ADHD and anxiety. “Sending cops to deal with children should never be how we move through these things.”

Catherine Pi-Sunye said: “This is a traumatic event which will impact the student and his relationship with education for the rest of his life. There must be a better way.”

Jord Bunsten is a neurodivergent parent who is concerned a child had a panic attack and ran away from school. “The child needs something and is communicating a need for a safe place to go. Calling the police didn’t meet the child’s need of having a safe place to go.”

Melinda Gage, an Issaquah School District parent, said her son left school grounds, and the school team followed him for .6 miles to ensure his safety. “We need to be meeting them where they are at,” Gage said. And “if it’s the district’s policy to call police, please reconsider.”

Three Ordway teachers, Carrie Strayer, Vanessa Johnson and Karla Wyman,​​ made comments in support for the Ordway principal, who was present during the incident. “We appreciate our principal’s cognitive, problem-solving approach with children. She knows the children well, and she works with them individually and with our classes.”

BISD school board members listen to public comments at the March 30 board meeting.
Community member Lee Wyant tell the school board about how being locked in a school resource room closet 20 years ago has affected his life.