Isaiah Elliot: A Black child, a sheriff’s deputy, and institutional racism.

Not even children are safe.

This is another of the countless examples of the institutional racism that Americans of color suffer under, every day — and have for 400 years. The WAPO article is well written, and deserves to be read completely. Tumalo Lookout comments follow below the story.

Reprinted verbatim from The Washington Post and the El Paso Sheriff’s Office (EPSO), El Paso County Colorado.

Tumalo Lookout comments follow after.


A Black seventh-grader played with a toy gun during a virtual class. His school called the police.

Curtis Elliott Jr. and Dani Elliott said that the school sending a police officer to their home put their son, Isaiah, in danger. (Dani Elliott)

By Jaclyn Peiser September 8, 2020 at 3:38 a.m. PDT

Dani Elliott was at work last month in Colorado Springs when her 12-year-old son’s vice principal called with alarming news: A police officer was on the way to her house — all because her son had played with a toy gun during his virtual art class.

Elliott says she was terrified, especially considering her son is Black.

“I never thought: ‘You can’t play with a Nerf gun in your own home because somebody may perceive it as a threat and call the police on you,’” Elliott said.

Elliott’s son, Isaiah, was later suspended for five days and now has a record with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and a mark on his school disciplinary paperwork saying he brought a “facsimile of a firearm to school” — even though he was in his own home doing a virtual class. The “gun” was obviously a toy, painted black and green with “Zombie Hunter” on the side.

Isaiah Elliott’s toy gun. (Photo courtesy of Dani Elliott)

Elliott lashed out at the school, arguing that it was irresponsible to call police given the frequency of police violence against Black people.AD

“With the cultural events going on right now, especially for young African Americans, you calling the police and telling them that he could have a gun, you put his life in jeopardy,” Elliott said.

Elliott said she thinks the school doesn’t understand the possible consequences.

In a statement on its Facebook page, Grand Mountain School said that while there has been false information spreading online, it can’t provide any details on what happened, citing privacy laws.

“We never have or ever will condone any form of racism or discrimination,” the statement said. “Safety will always be number one for our students and staff. We follow board policies and safety protocols consistently, whether we are in-person or distance learning.”

The incident happened Aug. 27, the third day of distance learning at Grand Mountain School. Elliott learned of the trouble when Isaiah’s art teacher emailed, saying she had notified the vice principal that her son, who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, was distracted and playing with a gun, which she believed was fake. Elliott responded, assuring the teacher that it was a toy gun and that she would talk to her son about keeping it away during class.AD

But the vice principal had already called a school resource officer to review a recording of the class. The officer watched footage of Isaiah and another boy pointing the toy gun at the computer screen, according to a police report, obtained by KOAA.

The other boy was a classmate who was studying at Elliott’s house at the time; deputies later visited his home as well, according to the police report. KDVR reported that the boy is believed to have also received a five-day suspension.

When officers arrived at Elliott’s home, her husband, Curtis, let them in. They explained to Isaiah that if he brought a toy gun to school, they could file criminal charges.

But when Isaiah’s father viewed body camera footage of the tape from his son’s class, he said it only showed Isaiah sitting on the couch, moving the green toy gun from one side to the other — not waving it as the teacher alleged.AD

Over the following few days, Elliott and her husband spoke with the school’s principal and vice principal, as well as a district superintendent. They would not budge on Isaiah’s suspension and disciplinary record.

“I said: ‘Black children cannot have that sort of thing on their record. You are reducing his chances at success,’” Elliott said she told school administrators.

She also questioned why the school called the police before notifying her and her husband. Elliott said that the vice principal said their son’s safety was the school’s top priority. But Elliott argued that calling the police actually put Isaiah’s life at risk, noting that he is the same age as Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed in 2014 by police in Cleveland while holding a BB gun.

Isaiah was traumatized by the experience, she said. “He was in tears when the police came,” Elliott said. “He was very scared. He said: ‘Mommy, I had butterflies in my stomach. I was scared and thought I was going to jail.’”AD

Elliott also criticized the school for recording the students in class. She said the school didn’t get permission from parents.

In a statement, Grand Mountain School acknowledged that the digital platform the school uses for virtual teaching has a recording function. “During our first week of school, we were still becoming familiar with the platform. It is not our current practice to record classes at this time. Parents will be notified if that changes,” the statement said.

Elliott and her husband, who both work for the military, decided to pull their son out of the school after the incident, placing him on a wait list for a charter school. She said she hopes his next school better understands and works with students with ADHD.

“I wish the world could see my son through the way I see him. He’s funny, compassionate, caring, goofy, and yeah, he gets distracted easily, but he’s a kid,” Elliott said. “I hate that the world doesn’t see him that way. It’s not fair.”


From The Tumalo Lookout

Before we examine the institutional racism exposed in this story, we should first talk about the story itself.

Many will likely question the truth or accuracy of the story. Is it the whole truth? In all likelihood, we aren’t ever going to know. But we can verify the gist of the story. To that end, I’ve appended a copy of the Sheriff’s report on the incident. It substantiates WAPO’s reporting of the incident. Find it at the bottom of this essay.

We have to acknowledge that there may be additional, relevant information. Note this from the WAPO story:

In a statement on its Facebook page, Grand Mountain School said that while there has been false information spreading online, it can’t provide any details on what happened, citing privacy laws.

Jaclyn Peiser September 8, 2020, “A Black seventh-grader played with a toy gun during a virtual class. His school called the police.” Washington Post

If we had further information, it might influence how we think about this incident. A critical thinker might change their opinions and conclusions about it. But further information isn’t available to us, so we’ll think through what we actually have.

Let’s talk about that toy gun for a minute.

The EPSO report states that the responding officer observed a middle school boy [Isaiah Elliot] “pointing a black handgun at the computer screen and pulling the trigger.” Being a retired IT guy, I suppose that there might have been such poor lighting or visibility of the boy playing in front of the TV that the colors of the “black handgun” couldn’t be seen by the officer reviewing the recording of Isaiah’s at-home behavior.

But I seriously doubt it, and while I acknowledge the possibility, I don’t believe the cop. I may be wrong, but I believe he lied in his official report. Reasons for my belief:

  1. The deputy officially described the “clear” view of the alleged “black handgun.”
  2. There’s no mention in the cop’s report of any difficulty viewing the recording.
  3. There’s an acknowledgement that the teacher thought it was a toy gun.
  4. The entire report is written with language that sounds practiced and polished with the goal of producing an official record that (1) sounds neutral and objective, and (2) justifies the officer’s home intervention.

Both professionally and personally, I find it very implausible that the cop could mistake this toy gun for a “black handgun.” Not impossible, but implausible to the point of stretching credulity beyond the breaking point.

The entire toy ‘slide’ of the alleged “black handgun” is lime green. And the toy gun is tipped with a safety orange ring at the “business end” of the pretend gun. These colors might appear slightly differently to the viewers of the recording, but I doubt that they could be mistaken for black. After all, there is some actual black beneath the slide, with which the human eye would naturally and immediately compare and contrast the other colors of the “black handgun.”

And speaking of the black, the black portion of this “handgun” would have been at least partially covered by Isaiah’s hand or hands, as he “pointed it at the computer screen.” Assuming that the camera that recorded the event was built into or on top of the computer screen where Isaiah was pointing the gun, then just about all that the sheriff’s deputy would have seen would have been the toy’s orange tip and lime green plastic.

Besides: cops are supposed to recognize toy guns from these colors. When they don’t, they end up killing children.

I’m convinced that the cop was lying about the color of Isaiah’s gun in his official report, and that he was attempting to justify his visit to the Elliott family home.

Then why did a cop go to Elliot’s house?

That’s a really important question, and it’s our segue into discussion of institutional racism.

As critical thinkers, we try to rely on the principle of charity whenever we can. Each of us has to make a personal decision about how far we’re willing to go in stretching credibility if we continue relying on the charity principle when it seems unreasonable. In this essay, I’ve made a point of elaborating that for the purpose of education.

But, overall, in the incident reported by The Washington Post, we see several examples of where it seems correct to think charitably about people’s decision making and their conduct — including, perhaps, the sheriff’s deputy, despite my belief that he lied in his official report.

The Principle of Charity in action

The teacher was probably following her official responsibilities in reporting Isaiah to the vice principal. She thought he only had a toy gun, but she was probably officially required to make a report. Such a requirement would be written for the safety of school children and staff, in a worst-case scenario should one ever arise. I don’t think that the teacher took a strong stand to protect Isaiah and his family from official intrusion; but neither do I know just how hard she may have tried, because I only have the deputy’s report — which I consider biased.

The vice principal was probably under the same constraints, for the same reasons, as the teacher. We’re probably looking at school district policy here.

The cop appears to have lied about the color of Isaiah’s toy gun. I’m not excusing that, and it’s discussed more, below. But it’s his job to protect children and staff from a possible, if remotely likely, school shooting. He did what he was trained to do, and that’s all. He didn’t show any particularly laudable judgement in how he handled the home contacts; but neither did he reportedly act like a pig.

The racism: personal or institutional?

It’s apparent to many that racism is part of this story. But, was there any personal animosity or malice toward Isaiah? Does this story document any racism on the part of any individual actors?

Not to my mind. It may well exist, but it may also truly be irrelevant here. For now, at least, I don’t think it’s part of the story. There’s insufficient information in the WAPO story to judge that. And so, relying on the principle of charity, critical thinking leads me to the conclusion that none of the players have been shown to be personally guilty of racism in this event, as reported in The Washington Post.

However, there is ample evidence of institutional racism at work here.

Go back to that police report. This is how cops are trained to write reports. It’s understandable, because cops have to justify and be able to defend their every action. They’re trained and practiced in writing reports so that they routinely produce “official evidence” of things that are only part of the story and not necessarily the truth. This is a process of both rationalizing and institutionalizing cop behavior. It’s part of cop culture.

Now read the supplement to the report, under the name of Paddack, Steven (presumably the reporting officer). Taken at face value, everything looks perfect — particularly the reporting officer’s conduct and discussion with Ms. Warren, as well as her response to Deputy Paddack’s visit, his admonitions, and his warnings.

Deputy Paddack writes,

“Miss Warren was extremely supportive of both me and the school administrative staff. She said she completely understood the decision and would continue to impress upon the importance of making the right decisions.”

El Paso Sheriff’s Office, Report, ORI Number: CO021000, Case Number 2020-00009924, Print date 09/03/2020. Supplement 20200828 0855 Paddack, Steven 04078

Perfect compliance. Textbook perfect. A model interaction. Possible? Yes. Plausible? Yes. Some Black Americans might well be in complete consonance with local law enforcement and their children’s school district on this issue.

But it’s also entirely plausible that Deputy Paddack has completely whitewashed his version of events. After all, he’s already lost his public credibility on this report by justifying his entire enforcement action on the false identification of a toy gun and its color — which he states was “clearly” visible.

It’s entirely plausible that both boys and their families responded deferentially and politely not out of consonance with the cop and the school district’s institutional values and views of the event; but, instead, because they were afraid of the cop and how this incident could haunt their children forever.

And that would be the result of 400 years of oppression, brutality, lies, and institutional racism against Black Americans (not to mention Native Americans, Hispanics, and so many other groups of underprivileged, exploited, and oppressed Americans throughout the nation’s history).

It’s possible that some of this law enforcement activity wasn’t even actually legal, and that these two families’ civil rights were violated. I don’t know. But I do question it. And if I, a White guy, can question it, so can other Americans. Particularly Americans of color.

And for the purpose of this essay, it doesn’t even actually matter whether the incident was or wasn’t entirely legal.

What does matter here is that these families might not have felt safe to challenge the officers or the school district. Because people of color have been subjugated to so much true discrimination and brutality throughout the history of this country that Black Americans always have to fear retribution from cops. For many Americans, it’s a given that this incident was based in racism.

And it is based in racism: institutional racism. It begins with black kids at home, horsing around while they’re attending school online. It involves a toy gun that a teacher reported to a vice principal and the vice principal reported to the cops. A deputy sheriff conveniently, and probably dishonestly, writes the toy up as a “black handgun.” It escalates to two home visits complete with the cop’s threats of criminal prosecution. Over two Black, 7th grade kids playing at home, in the house.

And the defenders of all of this will, reasonably but not convincingly, argue that it wasn’t about race; it was about the safety of children and teaching staff. Possibly so.

But all of this reinforces the perception of so many American citizens that the very institutions of American society are routinely leveraged against people of color. Institutions that were created and are maintained by Whites. Institutions that don’t penalize or cut short the lives of Whites as frequently as they do the lives of Americans of color.

And that’s why I made the distinction between personal racism and institutional racism. It’s why I said that I don’t think there’s any evidence that anyone involved in this event was acting with racism in their hearts. It’s very possible, but not evident from the WAPO story itself.

We don’t need to draw the conclusion that anyone involved in this incident had personal, racist motives. We can see that there are institutions that had the effect of oppressing two Black American families, whether or not the institutions were intended to target people of color.

How many institutions do you think contributed to this incident?

I think at least a half-dozen:

  1. The education system: the school district’s official and unofficial policies that led to the involvement of law enforcement for dubious reasons; and that resulted in five-day suspensions for the kids involved.
  2. Law enforcement: the El Paso Sheriff’s Office’s SOPs and “by-the-book” mentality.
  3. Colorado’s criminal and educational laws, and how cops choose to interpret them in actual enforcement activities.
  4. Colorado’s conservative political representatives and their stronghold over the politics that write and enforce the laws.
  5. Privacy laws: “prevent” — or protect — the school district from telling us about the “false information” that’s allegedly circulating online. It may or may not be true; and if true, it may or may not change one’s understanding of the incident. Alas, the public isn’t given the opportunity to do critical thinking about it. We’re obligated to take the system’s word for it, or not.
  6. Social media: Facebook, like all other social media platforms, has become a non-refereed alternative means of posting “alternative facts,” misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda. The school district is using it to put out their own, official version of events. Just as the sheriff’s deputy creates his own, official, version of events. (Compare with newspapers, where there are staffs of fact-checkers, editors, and professional reporting ethics and standards for publishing news.)

Words matter. Perceptions matter. Honesty matters. And the abuse of all of those things contribute to institutional racism. Especially in, but not limited to, law enforcement.

EPSO incident report on Isaiah Elliot

Source: El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, via The Washington Post

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