PINELLAS COUNTY, Florida – More and more Florida school law enforcement officers are raising questions about school safety, asking: At what age is a child treated like a criminal?
I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern reviewed data from across the state and found hundreds of elementary school children under the age of 10 were arrested over a two-year period.
“He’s 7. He’s not a criminal.”
Clearwater mom Tyeisha Harmon spoke to the I-Team about a school official’s attempt to handcuff her 7-year-old son at Belcher Elementary School earlier this year.
ABC Action News first met with Harmon in March, shortly after the incident occurred.
“I still don’t have a clear understanding of what happened step by step in this situation,” said Harmon. “Why it got this far.”
In the Pinellas County Schools Police Report, the school official wrote that Harmon’s son started scratching, kicking and punching and dropped her. To control the child, the officer then tried to roll the boy onto his stomach and handcuff him.
“There should never be a point where he has to be handcuffed. It’s like doing this to criminals, he’s seven. He’s not a criminal. He is a child. How much damage can it really do? “Asked Harmon.
Hundreds of children under the age of 10 have been arrested
Pinellas County Schools announced that I-Team Harmon’s son was being detained but not arrested.
The I-Team examined the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s data for the last two fiscal years available. 170 children aged nine and under were arrested in the 2017/18 financial year.
There were 125 arrests in the same age group in the 2018-2019 financial year. Most of the children were arrested for crimes. The number of arrests rises to 2,781 for children up to 12 years of age this year.
The data examined by the I-Team include the arrests of five 6 year olds and one 5 year old who were arrested for grievous bodily harm / battery.
The data did not include the 2019 arrest of a 6-year-old from Florida, which received national attention.
The arrest of 6-year-old Orlando is attracting national attention
Police cameras showed Kaia Rolle’s arrest in September 2019 at an Orlando charter school after a tantrum. The little girl’s hands were tied with zip ties.
In the video released in February, the 6-year-old role is heard saying, “No, please give me a second chance” and “Please let me go.”
No minimum age for arrest in Florida
Florida, in contrast to 22 other states As of January, there is no minimum age for arrest.
During the last session after Rolle was arrested in his district, Senator Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando) tried to change this.
Sen. Bracy’s bill would have banned the arrest of children under the age of 12.
“It is so traumatic for a child to be arrested. I have a 7-year-old girl and a 9-year-old girl, so this problem applies,” said Bracy.
The bill was negotiated to prevent children aged six and under from being arrested. But the change to a school safety law has died. Senator Bracy told the I-Team that at the next meeting he plans to revive his bill to create a minimum age for arrest.
“There are some lawmakers who believe that a 7-year-old could pose a threat,” Bracy said. “We have to change this law. Pretty plain and simple. “
However, the Florida Association of School Resource Officers (FASRO) told the I-Team that it wasn’t that easy.
“When you start setting a minimum age for something, you know what if – we could ‘what if’ kill this thing, but what if Susie brings a knife to school,” said Commander Dale Tharp of FASRO . “She’s starting to stab people and isn’t the minimum age to be arrested?”
Tharp said the decision on whether to arrest a child “all depends on the children’s actions” and the child’s disciplinary history.
“Where do you say ‘enough is enough'” said Tharp.
School officials must be able to make arrests, Tharp said. However, he stressed that it is an officer’s job to keep children out of prison.
“It’s out in the hallways, it’s available to children when they talk to you,” Tharp said. “We are not the enemy.”
ACLU: More officers mean more arrests
“A kid that age would read rhyming books like Dr. Seuss,” said Bacardi Jackson of the 6-year-old. “And that is the person, the child, to whom we now somehow attribute criminal intent.”
Jackson, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, helped draft the report, “The Cost of School Policing,” recently released by the Florida ALCU.
The report followed a state mandate that required a police officer or armed civilian at any school in Florida – a move that came in response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018.
Jackson said it was time to reconsider the idea of more officials improving student safety.
“There is no evidence that this is an effective strategy for school safety,” said Jackson. “If, over time, you’ve increased the rate at which we increased them, the number of civil servants at our sites, the results have been detrimental to our children overall.”
Looking at the latest available data from fiscal year 2018-19, the ACLU report found that the number of children arrested in school increased by 8%, while the number of children arrested in the community continued to decline.
“If they’re there to protect a campus, their role should be on the outskirts of the school,” Jackson said.
In response to the ACLU’s report, the Florida Department of Education sent the I-Team a statement that it totally disagrees with the results and that law enforcement in schools is the best way to protect students and school employees.
The statement said in part: “It is utterly confused and grotesque that this report seeks to politicize the safety of our children.”
The State Department of Education (DOE) continued, “It is outrageous that the authors of this report are using Florida students as a political gambling chip. Frankly, this report is a reckless and thoughtless comment that could endanger our students if locally elected officials believed it was objective research. “
The DOE does not provide guidance on school police or how to arrest students, leaving that to the local school districts and law enforcement agencies.
In Pinellas County, the school district has its own police force, headed by Chief Luke Williams.
Williams told the I-Team that he disagreed with the idea that a school official’s job should be limited to protecting school perimeter, and he says that an official does more than just keep the school safe.
“I think it’s just as important, or more important, to make sure that the relationships and interactions we have with students are the ones we can be proud of,” said Williams. “I can tell you that when school officials and MPs respond to a school on a daily basis, they do not go there with the intention of arresting a student.”
When asked if he believed Florida should be a minimum age for arrest, Williams said the decision to arrest should be made on a case-by-case basis.
“But I’m not a supporter of the arrest of young children,” said Williams.
An I-Team review of state youth arrest data found no children under the age of 10 were arrested in Pinellas County for the last two years of data available.
The boss said he would like to see more resources for social workers and mental health experts to help reinforce the police force.
“There are social workers in our schools who can respond to our schools and do a lot more than I can with a child in need,” Williams said.
“We shouldn’t handcuff children,” said Dr. LaDonna Butler, an early childhood mental health specialist and counselor at the University of South Florida.
Young children still have developing brains, she said, and how we treat children has a life-long impact.
“The sooner we start arresting, holding back and arresting children, the more likely they are to have these negative encounters with our public safety officers,” Butler said. “We need our law enforcement officers who can focus on the essentials and critical rather than dealing with tantrums in classrooms.”
Butler said law enforcement officers are not trained to be child development specialists.
“We can’t stay out of a child development problem,” said Butler.
Below is the full Florida Department of Education statement in response to the ACLU report, “The Cost of the School Police:”
“The Florida Department of Education is incredibly grateful for the many contributions that law enforcement is making to keep our school grounds safe, and we disagree with the findings of this report at all. Law enforcement presence in schools has been shown to be the best way to go Protect students and school staff. In addition, the presence of law enforcement in schools builds constructive links between law enforcement and students and often fills gaps in the communities. Law enforcement often act as mentor-educators who provide encouragement, assistance and assistance to mentors while at the same time providing care Ensuring Safety Often their work involves creating bonds within a school community, and it is utterly confused and grotesque that this report seeks to politicize the safety of our children by making school safer it is reconciled with a fully independent public dialogue. Clearly, “learning” has nothing to do with safety in school, but rather politicizing the safety of Florida students. Ultimately, our priority is and remains the safety of our students, and it is outrageous that The authors of this report use Florida students as a political gambling chip. Frankly, this report is a reckless and thoughtless comment that could endanger our students if locally elected officials believed it was objective research. “