Autistic 19-year-old handcuffed and injured after run-in with police

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Video from 2018 Special Education Parent Advisory Committee Expo at Desert Sands Unified Wochit

Michelle Chartrand was injured following an encounter with Riverside Sheriff’s deputies.(Photo: Courtesy of Luc Chartrand)

Since she was a child, Michelle Chartrand has struggled with academics, but her memory was always sharp. That’s why her mother said she believes the young woman’s account of an encounter with deputies that left the 19-year-old on the autism spectrum with a cherry-red wound across her forehead and nose.

Last Thursday, Michelle Chartrand became upset while at a transitional adult program at Summit High School in La Quinta and walked off campus. Staff and administrators followed her and called the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

The teen, who lives three blocks away, repeatedly told the officers and Summit personnel that she “just wants to go home.” The deputies, citing concern for her safety, handcuffed her, officials said.

The parents claim that both the school and law enforcement mishandled the situation, undoing years of therapy and progress. Michelle Chartrand said the incident has left her scared to go back to her job training.

“I pressed the crosswalk button and waited for the walking icon to pop up,” she said in an interview. “They thought I was acting crazy, but I wasn’t. I looked both ways before I crossed the road.”

According to her account, one female officer stood in front of her with arms open on the sidewalk to block her. The young woman stepped off the sidewalk onto the edge of the street to pass her. The female officer grabbed her left arm. A male officer grabbed her right arm. The two officers each put one hand on her head and pushed her down. Michelle lost her footing, and she fell onto the sidewalk, scraping her face. The officers then handcuffed the young woman, but removed them before her parents arrived.

“When I drove up, I saw police cars, a van and the principal’s vehicle,” said Kris Chartrand, Michelle’s mother. “Michelle was in the fetal position. Her head was tucked between her legs, and she was sobbing hysterically.”

Assignment or work?

Michelle Chartrand started at Summit’s vocational training program Aug. 27. She had been told she would work as a teacher’s aide, but she became concerned when she received an assignment resembling school work.

“I felt so confused about it because I’m a T.A.,” she said.

Her frustration built up, and she refused to attend school on Wednesday. She was later informed that the assignment she had received was actually a skills assessment form. Embarrassed that she had gotten so frustrated, she began to cry upon her arrival at school on Thursday.

“I felt bad because I was upset for nothing,” she said. “I don’t like when people see me cry.”

As students began to arrive, she decided to leave so no one would see her crying. School personnel followed her and reported the incident to the sheriff’s department. According to sheriff’s spokesman Chris Willison, the dispatcher assigned the call code 5150, indicating that Michelle was a danger to herself and others.

Her parents, however, said the situation did not meet the standards for a 5150, and said that the school should have tried to calm her down before calling authorities.

“When you think about it, Michelle had enough sense about her to go to the corner and press the light and wait for it to turn green,” said Kris Chartrand. “That kind of sounds like someone who had their wits about them.”

Michelle’s parents found out later that day that the 19-year-old could have signed herself out. The family, however, had never been given this information.

So far, Kris Chartrand and her husband Luc, have received little information from school district personnel and the sheriff’s department. Kris Chartrand said the superintendent has not responded to several calls.

According to Mary Perry, spokeswoman for Desert Sands Unified School District, Summit High School’s staff, teachers and the principal followed Michelle Chartrand off campus to ensure her safety.

“Law enforcement was also notified that a handicapped student who had special needs had left campus without parental consent,” Perry said. “This is our normal protocol in these situations. The parents were also notified.”

Case closed … to parents

Perry declined to schedule interviews with the school personnel who were present. She added that once law enforcement arrives, the incident leaves the school district’s jurisdiction.

 “We will not provide any further statements or interviews, as this is a matter of student privacy,” Perry said. “Our number one concern is the privacy, safety and security of the student.”

On Thursday, a week after the incident, the young woman’s parents visited the sheriff’s department in Thermal to get the police report and body cam footage. A supervisor at the sheriff’s department informed the couple that the department could not release the report because it was reported as a “5150” and contained medical information. The department referred the parents to the courthouse in Indio, where Luc Chartrand stood in line at the family court clerk’s window and his wife waited in front of the criminal court window, both unsure of which department was overseeing the case.

The court clerk could not find any records and referred the couple to the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, which subsequently referred the parents back to the sheriff’s department. According to the parents, they were told that the sheriff’s department releases the records at their own discretion. As of Friday, they had not received the records.

“They gave us the runaround,” Luc Chartrand said.

Willison, the sheriff’s spokesman, declined requests to interview the deputies who were present at the scene. He said officers reported an “emotionally disturbed student leaving campus” who resisted efforts to “control her.”

“The officers attempted to contact the woman, however, she walked past one of the officers and onto Fred Waring Drive; directly toward the morning traffic,” Willison said. “Thanks to our officer’s quick response, the woman was pulled back to the roadway edge. However, she struggled against our officers’ efforts to keep her out of traffic and they were forced to detain her in handcuffs.” 

According to Willison, Michelle Chartrand “deliberately” hit her head against the ground while she was being handcuffed.

The Chartrands rejected this account. They said their daughter had not injured herself during an emotional incident since she was a toddler and occasionally bit herself.

Moreover, they said they fully trust her to walk home from Summit, which is just a few blocks away. They said the young woman had frequently walked to La Quinta High School when she was a student there.

Luc and Kris Chartrand also said school personnel should have known how to address the situation based on their daughter’s individualized education program, or IEP, a roadmap for addressing the unique needs of each special education student.

IEPs are designed through a collaboration between parents, teachers, school psychologists and speech therapists. IEP meetings usually occur every three years and run about an hour. The people involved assess the special education student’s progress and needs and plan for the years ahead.

Michelle Chartrand’s last IEP meeting was in February. In the section that details her needs in “self-management,” it states, “When emotionally upset, Michelle will use chosen calming strategies of asking permission to leave the classroom.”

In high school, her teachers would calm her down during emotional episodes by asking her to take deep breaths or count to 10, she said in an interview. She suggested the school could have also offered to give her a ride home.

“It would’ve really meant a lot to me if they tried these techniques,” the young woman said.

This past spring, the teen graduated from La Quinta High, and, because of her challenges, she enrolled in a certificate program received pass-or-fail grades at Summit. Besides that, her parents said, she led the life of a fairly typical high school student. But things weren’t always so easy for their daughter, they added.

“Autism is tough because no two kids are alike,” said Kris Chartrand, who described her daughter as high functioning and verbal.

The girl was a “ball of rage” during her toddler years. But when she began her freshman year of high school, she met with a behavioral therapist five times a week. By her senior year, the young woman’s appointments came less than once a week and she was placed in traditional classroom settings.

“It’s been a journey for her,” the mother said. “At graduation, she sat in the heat for three hours at La Quinta High.”

According to the parents, the incident with deputies has undone much of this progress. For Michelle Chartrand, the incident has raised fears about her job prospects. She wants the job training, but is terrified of returning to Summit. She said if something like this happens again, she would “stay in her room for a week.”

“I’m worried about the future,” she said. “The truth is, it’s hard for me to be an adult.”

From left to right: Kris, Michelle and Luc Chartrand (Photo: Joseph Hong)

Records requested

The Desert Sun submitted its own request for the incident report, body cam footage and the disciplinary records of all officers involved.

Willison, the sheriff’s spokesman, said both The Desert Sun’s request and the Chartrands’ request are being “subjected to the same process of review and release as any member of the public.”

Desert Sands Unified School District did not respond to additional questions about why Michelle Chartrand and her family were not informed that she could sign herself out of school.

The parents emphasized that the family had the right to know the young woman could leave campus on her own.

The couple said they are considering legal action in the incident.

“Special needs kids have rights, and she had the right to know she can sign herself out,” Luc Chartrand said.

“Are we looking for a pay day? No,” Kris Chartrand said. “We’re looking for a change in policy so this never happens again.”

Joe Hong is the education reporter for The Desert Sun. Reach him at Joseph.Hong@desertsun.com or follow him on Twitter @jjshong5.

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