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Why the Switch Up?: Villainization of Black Autistic Teen Held on $1M Bond After Beating Florida Teacher’s Aide Draws Criticism; Attorney Says He’s Not Mentally Competent to Stand Trial

The defense attorney for a special-needs teenager accused of assaulting a teacher’s aide at his Palm Coast, Florida, high school has filed a motion requesting that the court examine his client’s mental competency after the boy’s charges were upgraded recently.

The widely shared video shows 17-year-old Brendan J. Depa assaulting a teacher’s aide named Joan Naydich on Feb. 21 at Matanzas High School.

His attorney, Kurt Teifke, filed a motion on March 3 arguing that Depa is not mentally competent to stand trial and should not be tried as an adult. Depa reportedly is on the spectrum and was being housed at a group home that “helps children, teens and adults with autism, intellectual disabilities, and behavior challenges.”

Brendan J. Depa Joan Naydich
Special needs student Brendan J. Depa hits teacher’s aide Joan Naydich. (Photo: @dbnewsjournal / Twitter)

“Review of pertinent school, medical and mental health records, as well as information learned through the defendant as well as collateral sources (to include family members), leads the undersigned to have a reasonable, good faith belief that the defendant is not mentally competent to stand trial,” read the motion.

The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office claimed that Depa said he attacked the teacher’s aide because she took his Nintendo Switch away during class.

The video shows Depa quickly walk up to Naydich and shove her, which sent her flying and landing on the floor. She appears to be unconscious as Depa kicked her several times and then punched her repeatedly before several other staff members came to stop him.

Initially, Depa was charged “in juvenile court with aggravated battery causing bodily harm or disability, which is a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison,” the News-Journal reports.

Local prosecutors have upgraded those charges to first-degree felony, aggravated battery with bodily harm. Depa faces a prison sentence of up to 30 years, and is being held on a $1 million bond.

Sheriff Rick Staly released a statement noting that the teacher’s aide had “severe injuries.”

“Thankfully, students and staff members came to the victim’s aid before the SRDs could arrive,” said Staly. “Our schools should be a safe place — for both employees and students. The actions of this student are absolutely horrendous and completely uncalled for. We hope the victim will be able to recover, both mentally and physically, from this incident.”

An editorial published in local outlet Flagler Live questioned how charging a Black special needs student as an adult when a white special needs child who broke a teacher’s arm at the school was not disciplined in the least is justice.

“We now know that another profoundly autistic student at Flagler Palm Coast High School years ago broke the arm of his teacher and assaulted another autistic child, leaving her bruised,” read the article.

“He was never disciplined nor transferred to the alternative school, which was still open at the time. Why? Because his parents were prominent. Because they were take-no-prisoner advocates for their child, as any parent ought to be,” it continued.

“Because they insisted he be treated according to Exceptional Student Education laws and regulations. Because they knew their parental rights before it became a hollow fad on Hammurabi’s electoral slates. Because the school was terrified of a lawsuit, and those parents could pay for it. Because the child was white. And because the incident was not on camera or on a sheriff’s blast list.”

Comments on a GoFundMe page set up for Naydich called the teenager “a monster.” It was on that fundraiser page that Naydich disputed the claim that she took away Depa’s Nintendo Switch.

“I just want to set the record straight. I never took the Nintendo Switch from him. From anyone that’s read or heard differently, I’ve been told this was unfortunately misinformation,” said Naydich.

Mental health advocate Sue Urban says that Depa is not at fault for his actions and that he was not a threat.

“By no means do I condone violence towards teachers in any way, shape or form, and I want to make that very, very clear,” said Urban.

“That this is being portrayed that this child is a threat, and that this is all on him. This is not this child’s fault. He is not a threat,” she said, adding that the incident is “a mental health issue. This is a problem with our system. It is broken.”

School Board Chair Cheryl Massaro said at a board meeting the day after the incident that public schools are required to educate all children.

“We are required to educate all children, all children,” Massaro said. “When you look at private schools, what happens is behavioral kids come back to public schools all the time, and we have no choice but to educate them the best that we possibly can. That is the law.”

Depa was released from the Department of Juvenile Justice on Feb. 22 and sent to his group home, East Coast Habilitation Options. However, he was arrested again on Feb. 24 when charged with the first-degree felony as an adult. That was when his bond was set at $1 million.

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