Sixteen-year-old with autism gets three years’ probation

— Photo from Katy Agneta 
Nathan Agneta sits near a waterfall during a recent end-of-summer family camping trip to the Adirondacks.

 

GUILDERLAND — Because of a year’s difference in their ages, two teens were treated differently after lodging false bomb threats at their school.

One of them, Nathan Agneta, had just turned 16, and the other 15. So, for the two bomb threats at Guilderland High School last year, Agneta was initially charged as an adult, with his name and photo widely reported, while the other is still unnamed.

Raise the Age legislation passed this year in New York will, in 2018 and 2019, make 18 the age in which suspects are treated as adults rather than the current age 16. That will leave North Carolina as the sole state in which 16- and 17-year-olds are treated as adults under the law.

Agneta, who had turned 16 two months before his arrest, is on the autism spectrum. He was diagnosed years ago with Asperger’s syndrome, said his mother, Katy Agneta, a special-education teacher.  She added that the term “Asperger’s” isn’t used any more, but instead is now called “high-functioning autism.”

Katy Agneta and her husband, Keith, are concerned about how people with disabilities, of any age, are treated by police. Next month, Albany County will include more about developmental disorders like autism in its training program for police officers and first responders.

Ultimately, Nathan Agneta’s charge was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor and he will serve three years’ probation. But his parents believe lack of communication between the school and police caused Nathan unnecessary hardship.

Two false threats

The Guilderland High School 15-year-old was placed into the state’s Family Court system right from his arrest because of his age. He was charged with two felonies: making a terroristic threat and computer trespass. The bomb threats were made through a computer.

Agneta was charged as an adult, arraigned in open court, for one felony, computer trespass with a felony purpose.

His arrest report from the Guilderland Police says that he “used a stolen password to gain access to an email account which did not belong to him and without having the owner’s permission” and that he then “shared the password with a friend so that the friend could send two bomb threats to the Guilderland Central High School.”

The school received the first threat on Nov. 21, just days before Thanksgiving, and another on Nov. 29. The arrests were made later that day, on Nov. 29.

The first threat, warning that a bomb had been placed in the school, was received by high school Principal Thomas Lutsic on the evening of Nov. 21, Lutsic said at the time, and there was enough time for police to thoroughly search the school with a trained dog. The school was deemed safe, and then locked down for the night. Administrators walked through the school with police before it opened on Nov. 22. Some police stayed at the school and, as a precautionary measure, parents were informed in an email about the threat.

The second time, the threat was received by Lutsic and one other administrator less than two hours before the 7:30 a.m. start of school. It warned that explosive materials would be brought in that day. Students were admitted to the school but their backpacks were searched at the door. The school then went into lockdown at 8:30 a.m.

 

— Photo from Dennis Debbaudt 
Dennis Debbaudt trains police and first responders across the country to recognize and more effectively communicate with people who are afflicted with autism. 

 

Case resolved before new law takes effect

Nathan Agneta’s case was recently resolved in Guilderland Town Court, when he was given three years’ probation by Judge John Bailey, his mother told The Enterprise. In April, he had pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor attempted computer trespass, said Katy Agneta.

The court has repeatedly declined to comment to The Enterprise about why, starting in June, the judge began treating Agneta as a youthful offender and discussing the case only with the lawyers and family members in the judge’s chambers. Before that, Agneta and his lawyer had appeared before the bench in open court.

Under the new law, as of Oct. 1, 2018, sixteen-year-olds charged with misdemeanors will no longer be treated as adults; the treatment of 17-year-olds will change one year later. The vast majority of cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds will eventually be handled in Family Court, as cases involving 15-year-olds are now, according to Raise the Age New York.

The situation gets more complicated for 16- and 17-year-olds charged with nonviolent felonies; they will start out in a new, special “youth part” of the current criminal court, appearing before judges trained in Family Law. Some young people charged with violent felonies could be diverted to the youth part, depending on whether a victim sustained physical injury, whether a weapon was used, and whether the the accusation includes criminal sexual conduct; this diversion would require the consent of the county’s district attorney.

 

— Photo from Katy Agneta 
Relaxing with his dog, Nathan Agneta has had his case resolved; his mother says the family is “relieved.” 

 

The arrest

Katy Agneta described how events unfolded on the afternoon of Nov. 29, 2016: She got home from work and then ran out for a few minutes to the store. When she got back home, her daughter was upset and said that the police had taken her older brother.

“I think she was kind of stunned,” said her mother.

Katy Agneta did not know about the second bomb threat or the lockdown, since her daughter, also a student in the Guilderland School District, had been home sick that day.

For a few panicked minutes, Katy Agneta had no idea if it were really the police who had taken her son, or someone pretending to be the police. If it were the police, she had no idea where he might have been taken or why.

The first thing she did was call her husband, Keith Agneta, who immediately came home from his work at General Electric.

The Agnetas then called the local police, and found that Nathan had been taken to the Guilderland Police Station.

He was being questioned and would be finished soon, Katy Agneta said she was told.

The couple immediately went to the station to wait for him.

By the time Nathan came out, Katy Agneta said, he had “almost passed out.” He had vomited, she said. The police asked if he was “on something,” she said.

“We understand the seriousness of this, and we don’t want to make it seem like we don’t want to be held accountable,” Katy Agneta said.

But the Agnetas have never been able to ascertain with any clarity whether police knew that their son suffers from autism.

“I know they interrogated him pretty harshly,” Katy Agneta said.

“I think any kid would be scared. But because Nate’s on the spectrum, I think experiences are heightened,” she added.

“I just wish there had been more communication between the school and the police,” she said.

Katy Agneta believes it was the school resource officer, Nicholas Ingle, who came to the house that afternoon, she said. The resource officer, a member of the Guilderland Police Department, is stationed at the school and paid by both the town and the school district. Ingle is listed on the arrest report as the arresting officer.

Marie Wiles, superintendent of the Guilderland schools, said this week that, although she could not discuss any specifics in the case, the district’s general policy is that violations of the school’s code of conduct are the purview of the school, while violations of law are the purview of the police. She called the two areas “parallel sets of proceedings” and said that the district doesn’t have any authority over how the police do their work.

Reached by phone this week, Ingle said that he made the the arrest. Beyond that, he said that all press questions need to go through the chief’s office.

Deputy Chief Cox said that the police department “has no records” about the case, referring The Enterprise to a 2014 state law that allows misdemeanors by youths with no prior offenses to be sealed. Nathan Agneta’s felony charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

Nathan Agneta had no idea what to do when questioned by the police, his mother said. “He didn’t think of saying, ‘I want a lawyer.’” If the couple had been at home when the police arrived, it would have been different, she said.

“Our concern is how kids with a disability are treated, regardless of their age,” she said.

Nathan’s father, Keith Agneta, told The Enterprise earlier, outside the courtroom after an adjournment in June, that “it would have been nice to get a courtesy call” when the police took Nathan, letting the Agnetas know where their son was and what was happening.

Deputy Chief Cox, Guilderland Police spokesman, confirmed that, as long as the law specifies that a 16-year-old is an adult, police would not telephone the parents of a 16-year-old they had taken in for questioning.

Autism

The Guilderland Police have answered Enterprise questions about the original charges but will not discuss whether they knew that Nathan Agneta had autism or whether they made any accommodations when questioning him, because the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, prevents them from discussing whether anyone does or does not have a medical condition, said Deputy Chief Cox.

Nathan, his mother said, has an Individualized Education Plan — or a customized document made for every student who needs special education. He received tutoring for months after the arrest, she said, and began attending a new school district late in the school year, in March; he is now a junior there.

Her family and the other boy who was arrested were close friends, said Katy Agneta, complicating the situation. The two boys have known each other since preschool, she said.

Like many people affected by autism, Nathan Agneta can have problems with social impulsivity, Mrs. Agneta said, and with making good judgments. She said she thought that these problems — which, of course, are also shared by many teenagers, whether or not they have a disability — played into the situation last fall that led to the false bomb threats.

Autism affects one in 68 children born today, according to the website of the Autism Society. The prevalence of the disorder is on the rise; it has almost doubled since the 2004 rate of 1 in 125.

Autism is a complex developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. It is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. Some behaviors associated with autism include delayed learning of language; difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation; difficulty with executive functioning, which relates to reasoning and planning; narrow, intense interests; poor motor skills; and sensory sensitivities.

Autism is a lifelong condition, but increased awareness and early diagnosis and intervention and access to appropriate services and supports lead to significantly improved outcomes, according to the Autism Society.

Police training

Dennis Debbaudt of Florida trains law enforcement and first responders around the country, and produces videos and books, on how to effectively recognize and communicate with people with autism.

Debbaudt says that people affected by autism are not any more likely than the typical population to be dealt with by law-enforcement officials as witnesses, victims, or suspects. Only about 20 percent of the contacts between police and people with autism will be related in some way to either juvenile justice or criminal justice, he said.

People with autism, though, are up to seven times more likely than others to encounter police, Debbaudt said, because of what is called the “suspicious person” contact, such as calls from neighbors or passersby who see someone doing something that doesn’t seem “normal.”

Officers and first responders can be prepared to deal with people on the autism spectrum by making sure their questions are clear and by limiting their body expressions and facial expressions and other gestures, said Debbaudt.

“Your nonverbal communication is as important as the verbal,” he said.

Debbaudt was not familiar with Agneta’s case, but said that what he would like to ask is whether Guilderland Police, if they knew about his disability, had prepared to meet with him by finding out more about “how people affected with this social and communications disability may take in information, and then adjust your approach,” he said.

Cox said last week that privacy issues prevented him from discussing whether police knew about Nathan Agneta’s autism; he was not free to confirm whether Agneta was affected by autism or not, he said.

Debbaudt said that police, when talking with someone who has autism, should keep their terminology “really clear.” Officers should not explain the terms that are central to their questions, when interviewing someone with autism, but should instead ask the person being interviewed to define the terms.

A police-training video on Debbaudt’s website shows Debbaudt interviewing a number of different people who have autism, simulating a police interview. When asked if they agreed to “waive their Miranda rights,” several looked puzzled and, after confirming, “My right?” began to wave their right hands.

There is great variation in intelligence among people with autism, Debbaudt said.

Someone who is high-functioning is likely to be of normal or higher-than-normal intelligence, he said. But people affected with autism — regardless of where they are on the spectrum — tend to process information much more slowly than “typical people” who have their same intelligence level and skills, he said.

Debbaudt trains police officers and first responders to: avoid jargon and keep questions short and concise; avoid humor, jokes, slang, and figures of speech; deal with one issue at a time; be patient and allow the person time to formulate responses; allow the person to write down answers if he or she prefers; consider frequent breaks; be alert to nonverbal cues that the person does not understand a question; and videotape all encounters.

He also advises officers and first responders to “speak to adults as adults; children as children.”

Florida has a law, Debbaudt says, that requires suspects who have autism to be informed of their right to have an “interpretive advocate” in the room with them if they wish. That advocate would be someone who can help them to navigate the interview.

Debbaudt said that he is unsure of how helpful that really would be. If his own son — who is 34 and was diagnosed with autism 31 years ago — were to be arrested, Debbaudt would prefer for him to have a lawyer rather than an interpretive advocate, he said.

Katy Agneta said that the staff of the Albany County Probation Department has been very understanding. When the family took Nathan there for his first appointment, the Agnetas were told, “He’s 16, you can’t go upstairs with him,” Katy Agneta said.

But when she explained that he is on the spectrum, they immediately said, “OK, you can go up with him.”

It’s her son’s punishment, not hers, she says, so she does not go into the room with him. She just feels safer knowing where in the large building in downtown Albany he is. He is in an area that is unfamiliar, and he has no cell phone, she said.

“I’m sure he’ll be fine, but,” she said, trailing off.

“Some people get it,” she said. “Not that they’re going to change the punishment, but they’re very empathetic.”

Albany County offers a training program to help officers and first responders identify people who have a mental illness and to keep everyone safe during encounters with them. As of next month, the program, which is run by the county’s Department of Mental Health and that department’s Mobile Crisis Team, will include more information about developmental disorders including autism, said county spokeswoman Mary Rozak.

Public concern about this issue rose when a video of a July 2016 Miami police encounter with a young man with severe autism went viral. The young man was sitting alone in the street, playing with a toy truck. He had wandered out of a mental-health center, and a caregiver had gone to retrieve him, but not before a citizen had called police and reported that the young man had a gun and was threatening to kill himself.

The young man’s caregiver was seen on video lying in the street on his back, shouting to police that the young man had autism. Police wound up shooting the caregiver, who was injured but not killed.

Debbaudt commented that he thought that the home that the young man lived in should have ensured that he was never left alone outside, given the severity of his condition; he also said the video gave the impression that the police could have heard the caregiver shouting, but that they were in fact much too far away to hear what he was saying. A police officer now faces criminal charges in that case.

Similar case, but no name released

An incident similar to the false bomb threat made in Guilderland occurred in Cobleskill-Richmondville days after Nathan’s arrest, said Katy Agneta, and that 16-year-old student’s name was never released. She wondered why that case was treated differently than her son’s.

The New York State Police arrested the 16-year-old student in connection with a bomb threat sent to the Cobleskill-Richmondville High School on Dec. 2, said Trooper Mark Cepiel, spokesman for the State Police’s Troop G.  The 16-year-old was charged with felony-level falsely reporting an incident on school grounds, Cepiel said this week, and the name was never released.

There was no reason why the name couldn’t have been released, he said.

His agency’s policy on this, Cepiel said, is that the State Police do not release the names of any suspect below the age of 19 charged with misdemeanors. Troopers do not release names in those cases because New York State Criminal Procedure Law allows for the court to treat anyone who is less than 19 and charged with a first-offense misdemeanor or below as a youthful offender and to seal the case.

“If they do treat it as a youthful offender, and we release the name, we could be in violation of CPL,” Cepiel said of the law.

The State Police generally release the name in felony cases involving offenders younger than 19, unless there are some circumstances that argue against doing so. Cepiel did not know of any circumstances in the Cobleskill bomb-threat case that would have prevented the name from being released.

Troop G issued over 1,600 press releases last year, he said, written by people of appropriate rank; most are not written by Cepiel, although he oversees them.

“If a reporter had asked, it certainly would have been released,” he said.

There are “variations all over,” Cepiel said. There are still some departments that release the names of 16- and 17-year-olds “no matter what,” he said.

The Guilderland Police Department’s policy is to always release the names, whether the 16- or 17-year-olds are charged with felonies or misdemeanors, said Cox. He said Guilderland does not plan to stop releasing the names until Raise the Age is implemented.

“This will be clearer when Raise the Age comes in,” Cepiel said. “The variation between departments will go away.”

The Agnetas’ future

The past year has been “just a really overwhelming time,” Katy Agneta said. “The court dates kept getting postponed, so that was hard.” Trying to get Nathan Agneta to his tutors every day after the couple got home from work was stressful. It was better when he started school, she said.

“His teachers have indicated he’s a good kid,” Katy Agneta said of how Nathan is doing in his new school.

He has certainly been punished, she said. “He was expelled. He was arrested. His mug shot’s all over the internet. He leads quite a different life because of this.”

Nathan is in a good place now, with good supports, she said. For the whole family, it’s a relief that this is over.

“I think we’ll just move forward and learn from the mistakes,” she said.

 

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