'He hit me so hard’: Police records reveal staff assaulting students at Queen Creek school

Assaults on students at a private residential school in the East Valley are of course raising concerns.

Specifically, cases of staff members accused of getting physical with juveniles – which is against protocol.

"They’re supposed to use de-escalation techniques, they’re supposed to talk to the kids, try and calm them down, but every time we’ve come out here, we come for the same thing," Sarah Shanno, an agent with the Department of Child Safety (DCS), was overheard on body camera footage saying to police.

It's where challenges of protocol, discipline and restraint collide.

"He grabbed me by my legs, threw me on my back. My head hit the floor," a victim was heard saying on body camera footage.

What's the Arizona Department of Child Safety really up against?

"We’ve been having a lot of issues with Canyon State, so they don’t really give us videos without you guys here," a DCS agent said to police.

They call on law enforcement to step in and advocate for delinquent youth and at-risk children.

Case by case

On April 8 of last year, a Queen Creek Police officer responds to Desert Lily Academy, the all-girls school located at Canyon State Academy (CSA).

Body camera footage is blurred due to the fact this is private property and minors are involved.

The campus is state-certified, licensed with the DCS and is owned by Rite of Passage.

Shanno is the DCS agent who called Queen Creek Police.

"One of the staff was trying to restrain one of the kiddos and in the process of taking her down, she has bruising and I’m gonna be frank, a big a--, like it looks like road rash down the side of her face," Shanno said to Queen Creek Police.

Security footage shows the student walking up a ramp to a building that is password restricted.

Robert Stapleton is the CSA staff member who follows her and forces her away from the door before grabbing her from behind. A struggle ensues and he takes her to the ground.

"A little context. She’s been all over the place all day. They’ve tried to keep their hands off of her, she’s been in this building before. My understanding is she’s gotten razor blades from the shavers and other kind of contraband things," Brian Heath, executive director of Rite of Passage said to police.

According to DCS, staff members are not supposed to put their hands on students and it took two days to notify the police about this incident.

"They are what we call a QRTP. So technically they’re not supposed to be putting their hands on these kids, but they do, and the kids have injuries 90% of the time," Shanno said to police. QRTP stands for Qualified Residential Treatment Program.

Police did submit charges of assault for Stapleton as well as the girl who allegedly tried hitting him. The county attorney’s office declined to prosecute Stapleton due to no reasonable likelihood of conviction.

‘He hit me so hard’

On April 28, 2022, Queen Creek Police Officer Christian Williams arrives at Canyon State because a student has been punched in the chest by an employee.

The alleged reason?

"'Excuse me, Mr. Clark, may I please pass gas?' And he hits me in my chest. Like, I was literally asking to pass gas. He hit me so hard. Have you seen the video?" the victim was heard saying in blurred body cam footage.

"I haven’t yet," Officer Williams said.

"I literally had to go sit down for a second to catch my breath so that I could walk up here and report it," the student said.

Surveillance video shows the student walk to the front of the classroom, approaching staff member Anton Clark.

"My perspective, being 30, you’re a little less than half my age right? I couldn’t even fathom closed fist striking you with any real intent," Officer Williams said to the student.

CSA suspended Clark immediately. He later told police that the victim would not sit down and was disrupting the class.

Clark was charged with aggravated assault but completed the felony diversion program to have his case dismissed.

‘Now he has four burn marks on his face’

On May 19, 2022, officer Williams is back at CSA for another assault call.

"My kid tripped on the floor, got a bloody nose, and while he was on the floor, Peña knelt down in a kneeling position and put his elbow on the left side of my kid’s cheekbone, rubbing his face into the ground, so now he has four burn marks on his face," a DCS agent told Officer Williams.

The DCS agent is talking about Edwin Peña Lopez, a CSA staff member. 

Classroom surveillance video shows Lopez tackling a student to the ground. He gets on top of the boy, holding him down.

"And then he came and put his elbow on me on this side of my face. That’s why this all got scraped up," the victim was heard explaining on body camera footage.

According to police, Lopez says the student was told to leave the class due to bad behavior. He explains the technique he used called a "two-shoulder assist."

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"The hold that you were doing. Is that a hold that is taught here?" Officer Williams asked Lopez.

He answers, "Yes, I believe it’s called a shoulder assist. Kind of escort the student physically."

Officer Williams asks another staff member about the type of restraint used.

"Is any of that trained?" 

The answer: "No," the staff member said.

Lopez is charged with aggravated assault and enrolled in the felony diversion program.

Student tackled to the concrete

On July 18, 2022, Queen Creek Police return to campus.

"He kept grabbing me, telling me to go inside, he shoved me so I shoved him back and then he tried to restrain me and then he grabbed me by my legs and my head hit the floor," a student said to police.

The 16-year-old student says staff member Phillip Miller tackled him onto concrete.

He tells the officer he was upset about something and needed a minute to calm down before being taken to the ground and placed in a "seated restraint."

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"They stretch your legs out and someone sits on your leg and someone pulls your arms back," the victim said.

This happened nearly a month prior to the report.

CSA's program director Timothy Gloston tells police the force was unnecessary.

"He should have definitely gave him some space – the kid is not listening to him. He should allow another staff to take over," Gloston said to police.

Miller was fired. Prosecutors declined the aggravated assault charge due to the "victim being reluctant."

More reports of assault at Canyon State

In four of the six assault cases we reviewed, DCS contacted the police first, not CSA.

FOX 10 spoke to the chief of Queen Creek PD, Randy Brice.

"What we’re seeing the majority of is sometime during their review or report or internal workflow process, DCS is determining ‘Hey, we need to call the police on this because we think this meets a certain level of a criminal act,’" Chief Brice said.

Police reports reveal on July 20, 2022, a DCS caseworker told officers that a CSA staff member assaulted a kid two days prior, allegedly throwing the boy into a wall and causing him to black out.

On August 6 of last year, the same DCS agent notifies police about a CSA staff member, Larry Dailey, allegedly squeezing an eight-year-old boy’s shoulder so hard, it left bruising.

There’s no video of these two incidents and the county attorney's office declined to prosecute both cases, citing no reasonable likelihood of conviction.

Chief Brice says GCPD has offered CSA training on de-escalation and restraint tactics.

"But DCS really is the governing agency when it comes to what they do in those situations, but any time juveniles involved, we’re very careful. We look at this stuff very seriously and we’re committed to making sure we follow through on those," Chief Brice said.

Police reports show commonalities brought up by the staff members investigated.

Some say Canyon State is understaffed, leaving employees outnumbered by students, the restraints performed are not effective, and techniques taught by CSA do not work for "real situations."

CSA & DCS statements

CSA officials did not want to speak on camera, but a statement reads:

"The safety of our youth is paramount. Canyon State Academy has a zero tolerance for abuse, properly reports any allegations of misconduct, and terminates or retrains staff based on investigation findings.

The isolated incidents occurred a year ago, and since that time, we have worked in partnership with the Department of Child Safety and Queen Creek Police Department and have substantially reduced the number of incidents and calls to law enforcement. The actions of a few terminated staff should not define the hard work of the hundreds of dedicated employees working every day to deliver quality services to Arizona youth."

The Department of Child Safety says CSA has been transparent in reporting to DCS through a hotline.

The agency's statement reads:

"The safety and well-being of children in our care is our first priority. The Department has been working with Canyon State Academy to address both contractual and licensing matters as it relates to this issue and how to better manage youth who have experienced trauma. In all cases, Canyon State was transparent in reporting what they knew at the time to DCS. In cases where CSA was aware of an allegation, it was reported to the Hotline per mandated reporter law. The Department has partnered with Canyon State leadership and their risk management team to provide better training and resources for staff. There has been a reduction of events and improved outcomes for youth as a result."

By the numbers

Below are the statuses of each case.

  • Robert Stapleton: MCAO declined prosecution. No reasonable likelihood of conviction.
  • Anton Clark: MCAO did prosecute for aggravated assault on a minor. He completed the felony diversion program for the charge to be dismissed.
  • Edwin Peña Lopez: MCAO did prosecute for aggravated assault on a minor and is enrolled in the felony diversion program.
  • Phillip Miller: MCAO declined prosecution due to the victim being "reluctant."
  • James Parks: MCAO declined prosecution citing no reasonable likelihood of conviction.
  • Larry Dailey: MCAO declined prosecution citing no reasonable likelihood of conviction.

Since the inception of the Queen Creek Police Department in January 2022, there have been 19 cases stemming from CSA as of June 26 of this year.

Four of them led to the suspects being charged, five of them were declined to be prosecuted by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, six were found not to have probable cause and four remain either under investigation or are still being reviewed by the county attorney's office.

UPDATE: Since the inception of the Queen Creek Police Department in January 2022, there have been 19 cases stemming from CSA as of July 19 of this year. Four of them led to five suspects being charged with assault or some sort of assault type charge, five of them were declined to be prosecuted by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, eight were found not to have probable cause and two remain either under investigation or are still being reviewed by the county attorney's office.