“The question of ‘What happens when the police are called?’ has always caused anxiety for parents of children with intellectual and development disabilities,” said Paxton Campus Communications Coordinator Rachel Roseberry in a release last week. As a result, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and Leesburg’s Paxton have partnered to support a new initiative: Positive Interactions with Law Enforcement (PILE).
In a recent report published by the Center for Public Integrity, Virginia was ranked No. 1 in the nation in school-based arrests, with children with disabilities disproportionately represented.
Recognizing this, the ALLY Advocacy Center at Leesburg’s Paxton Campus wanted to focus on prevention, and the PILE initiative was created to approach the issue in a multi-faceted way. The initiative focuses on law enforcement training, parent training, developing safety curriculum for students with disabilities in school, training for adults with disabilities in the community, training for lawyers in the criminal justice system and increased training for all first responders.
The initiative aims to show young people with disabilities and law enforcement how to best interact with each other. The LCSO deputies take a course to learn about mental illness/health and autism which includes site visits to different county resources.
Officers learn about behaviors that can be misread, how to identify someone with developmental disabilities and how to best de-escalate situations. Students at the Paxton Campus facilities are also taught how to best comply with law enforcement and teachers work to normalize law enforcement so that students will not be afraid of officers or other first responders.
“We partnered up with Paxton Campus about 18 months ago. We run our CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) Deputies through Paxton, we have a guest speaker talking about what autism is and we are currently doing 911 dispatcher training – so that our law enforcement officers actually know how to react when they see someone with autism,” LCSO Sergeant Linda Cerniglia said in a release. “Education is power. The more the law enforcement learns, the better response we can give to citizens of Loudoun County.”
“We are teaching our students at The Aurora School on Paxton Campus how to interact with law enforcement officers and now we are teaching law enforcement ways to try to get information from our students, Kendra McDonald, Program Director at The Aurora School said. “For example, our students are learning how to respond and convey basic information such as their name, phone number and address, whether they are able to talk about it or whether they use sign language, their iPads, pictures or some kind of identification on them. And we are teaching the law enforcement officers how to seek out that information from people who have intellectual or developmental disabilities,” she added.
Paxton Campus, a Leesburg-based nonprofit that works with people with intellectual and development disabilities, was founded in 1922 by Rachel Paxton who turned her home and property into a safe and welcoming environment for underprivileged families. Over the years, the property has served as a convalescent center, daycare center and orphanage. The campus began to serve children with special needs in 1967 after a group of parents formed The Arc of Loudoun to start a preschool for their children since none were available.
The organization recently received a $2,000 Pathways to Justice grant from its national organization, The Arc of the U.S. The grant is awarded to initiatives that work to form strong and lasting partnerships between criminal justice and disability professionals to address service gaps encountered by people with disabilities and their families, according to a release.
Paxton Campus has also formed the county’s first Disability Response Team (DRT) to help coordinate a multidisciplinary training and be the point of contact when these types of cases come into the system. The members of DRT include representatives from the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, Juvenile Detention Center, Department of Juvenile Probation and Public Defender’s Office, as well as family advocates, self-advocates and disability advocates.
“We want to collaborate with people on all sides of the criminal justice system. We have formed an amazing partnership with Sergeant Cerniglia and her team, where the CITs come to Paxton Campus once a month for a site visit,” Melissa Heifetz, Administrative Director of ALLY Advocacy Center and initiator of the PILE Program, said.
The campus also offers safety training for parents, a curriculum for the students at the school, and are now training the 911 dispatchers on how to receive calls from people with intellectual or developmental disabilities or about someone with these disabilities.
“Our next step is to train criminal attorneys to be aware that whether the individual is a defendant or a victim, they have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and may need reasonable accommodations or modifications throughout the process,” Heifetz said.