A five-day jury trial has been scheduled for a lawsuit that alleges two Montgomery County police officers assaulted and handcuffed a 5-year-old boy after he walked away from his elementary school in Silver Spring.

In January 2020, the officers — Dionne Holliday and Kevin Christmon — picked up the boy after East Silver Spring Elementary School administrators reported he wandered away unattended. The officers screamed at him, berated him, handcuffed him and advised his mother on how to beat him, all captured on police body camera footage.

The trial is scheduled for Jan. 23-27, three years after the incident, according to court records.

The case appears poised to go to trial, despite top county officials saying they want to settle with the family of the boy.

In recent interviews, County Executive Marc Elrich said he does “not want to fight this thing in court and I’m not interested in finding out how to win,” but he was waiting for the family’s attorneys to “make a demand.”

“I have no interest in fighting this, and no interest in trying to leave with no responsibility. I was not very happy with what I saw, nor is anybody else,” Elrich, a former elementary school teacher, said. “This is not something you should try to win, this is not something I’m interested in winning. … I wouldn’t take any pride in that.”

Montgomery County Council Member Tom Hucker has been critical of Elrich and his approach to handling the lawsuit, urging him to be more deliberate in settling the case.

The family’s attorneys have said they would be willing to settle the case.

However, online court records suggest settlement discussions were not successful in recent months. The files were not available at Montgomery County Circuit Court this week.

The county was originally listed as a defendant in the case but all charges against the county were dismissed early this year.

On Jan. 14, 2020, the 5-year-old boy walked away from the elementary school, prompting administrators to call police, who confronted him less than a quarter-mile from the school and escorted him back.

Over the next hour, as the boy became increasingly upset, the officers called him names such as “little beast” and screamed within inches of his face, mocking his cries, while school district employees watched. The assistant principal at the time, Justine Pfeiffer, can be seen in body camera footage laughing.

Later, after the boy’s mother arrived, the officers encouraged her to “beat” the boy to keep him in line and coached her on how to do it without getting in trouble.

The incident was not disclosed to county or school district leaders until a year later when Bethesda Beat reported about it in January 2021 after a lawsuit was filed by the family. The body camera footage showing the incident was released about two months later after formal requests for it by Bethesda Beat, county officials and community advocates.

The case sparked widespread debate throughout the county about the police department’s role in school discipline and interactions with children. It also got attention from international media outlets.

When the two officers confronted the boy near the school, they were immediately stern with him, according to the body camera video, and became increasingly aggressive as the boy got more upset.

Christmon grabbed the boy’s arm and escorted him into a police car.

At the school, the police told the boy to sit down in a chair. When he hesitated, one officer picked him up and put him in the chair. The boy again became upset and cried as the officers forcefully told him to “shut that noise up.”

When he was seated, Holliday was shown screaming five times inches from the boy’s face, mocking the 5-year-old’s cries.
“I need to beat on somebody,” she then said, one of several references the officers made to “beating” children or the boy.

Some school employees can be heard on the video discussing the boy’s disciplinary history with officers.

After the boy’s mother arrived, the officers brought them both into a conference room. After a brief conversation in which they told the mother she can legally “beat” the child, an officer placed one handcuff around the boy’s wrist and put both of the boy’s hands behind his back.

The family in January 2021 filed a lawsuit against the officers and MCPS alleging assault and battery, false arrest, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It also alleged violations of the Maryland Declaration of Rights and negligence against the Montgomery County school board.

In January, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Richard Jordan dismissed most counts of the lawsuit, but largely reversed the decision in April.

After an internal investigation, both officers involved remained employed. The department has said that the officers faced discipline, but has declined to say what it was.

Pfeiffer was placed on administrative leave briefly by MCPS, then assigned to another school. Within weeks, she was reassigned to a position in the school district’s central office after pushback from the new school community.

The county government in November passed a new law, inspired by the incident, that requires all Montgomery County police officers in uniform or when displaying a badge or insignia to be provided with body cameras.

The law also requires the county police department’s Internal Affairs Division to review any body camera footage and report to the police chief any case related to the use of force, involving children younger than 18, a potential criminal offense, a fatality or serious injury.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

Caitlynn Peetz

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com