Florida’s Schools Have Become a High-Stakes Experiment in Classroom Policing
reason.com | C.J. Ciaramella | June 8, 2020
Will a hiring surge for school police and renewed zeal for zero tolerance policies undo years of declining youth arrests in Florida?
On the morning of Aug. 30, 2019, as Hurricane Dorian was bearing down on Florida’s Treasure Coast, Jamie Seiler was at the hospital where she worked, preparing for the storm’s approach. Then her cellphone rang.
On the other end was the principal of her son’s school. The principal said her son had been escorted out of the school in handcuffs and was being taken to a psychiatric hospital in a police car.
Getting such a call is a nightmare for any parent, but Seiler’s son hadn’t threatened to shoot up the school or commit suicide. He had several developmental disorders and had thrown a tantrum. He was just 9 years old.
“I flipped out, I broke down,” Seiler says. She sat in her boss’s office, “hysterical to the point they didn’t think that I would be able to drive.”
A professional therapist would later tell Seiler that a school resource officer (SRO) had tackled her autistic 80-pound son while he was sitting on a bench—a use of force that the therapist, who was in the room at the time, said was unnecessary. One teacher who was present cried, according to an incident report filed by the therapist.
Seiler’s son Evan is only one of thousands of small children who are led out of schools in handcuffs every year around the country. Juvenile arrests in Florida have been steadily declining over the last decade, as they have been more generally across the U.S., but for the next few years the state will be a bellwether for school safety and juvenile justice.
After the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the state embarked on an aggressive plan to “harden” its schools against shooting threats, including putting at least one SRO or armed guardian in every K-12 school in the state. However, civil liberties groups, disability rights advocates, and lawyers for parents say the state overcorrected, and that students, especially minorities and those with disabilities, are now bearing the brunt of new zero tolerance policies and heavy-handed discipline. As arrests of small children make national headlines, and legislators and parents debate how far is too far when it comes to school safety, Florida’s schools have become a high-stakes experiment in policing.
Amid a nationwide debate on law enforcement violence following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, school resource officers have flown somewhat under the radar. But it’s clear that education officials are already rethinking police presence in classrooms: In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed after an officer pressed a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes, the school board recently voted in favor of a resolution ending a $1 million partnership with city police. Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland, Oregon, announced last week that he would disband the city’s school resource officers, putting a million dollars from the SRO budget toward counselors, social workers, and “culturally specific partnerships.” Other states and cities appear to be considering similar measures.
In Florida, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warned in a report last June that the new laws could reverse years of progress in reducing school arrests. While juvenile arrests both in and out of Florida schools continued to fall in the 2017–2018 fiscal year, according to state law enforcement data, “the percentage of youth arrests for misdemeanors that occurred at schools, rather than in the community, increased to 20%, the first increase in a decade,” the Florida ACLU wrote.
Meanwhile, attorneys, disability rights advocates, and media investigations say that there’s been a spike in the use of involuntary psychiatric commitments against kids like Evan, thanks to an existing Florida mental health law that gives police authority to temporarily lock up both children and adults against their will. Shahar Pasch is a Florida attorney who represents children with disabilities and their parents, including Seiler.
“Since Parkland, it’s gone through the roof,” Pasch says. “I had another young, elementary-aged kid who was handcuffed and hobbled, which means his legs were tied together.”
Do We Really Handcuff Children?
Last year, an SRO in Orlando, Florida sparked public outrage after he arrested a 6-year-old girl, Kaia Rolle, for misdemeanor battery. A small child, handcuffed and arrested, booked and given a mugshot? The arrest made national news and led to the officer’s firing. It wasn’t an isolated incident, though. Stories like that pop up every few years. In 2006, it was a St. Petersburg 5-year-old who was handcuffed and arrested in school.
ABC News reported that, according to FBI crime data, 30,467 children under the age of 10 were arrested in the United States between 2013 and 2018. During the same period, 266,000 children between the ages of 10 and 12 were arrested.
The good news is that the rate of juvenile arrests in the U.S. has dropped significantly since its peak in 1996, from roughly 8,500 arrests per 100,000 individuals between the ages of 10 and 17 to 2,400 in 2016. This mirrors the nationwide trend of declining crime throughout the 2000s and 2010s.
But in most places, there is no minimum age at which a child can be arrested and charged with a crime—34 states have no lower age limit for delinquency, while 11 states place the floor at 10 years old.
According to data from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Florida police arrested 2,781 children between the ages of 5 and 12 in fiscal year 2018–2019, the latest year for which data are available. The youngest was a 5-year-old Hispanic boy. He was charged by the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office with felony aggravated assault. The data were anonymized, though, and Reason could not obtain more information about the case from the sheriff’s office.
Conduct Unbecoming an Officer
In an effort to see how common allegations of excessive force like Seiler’s are against the approximately 1,800 SROs in Florida, and whether those complaints are substantiated by police departments, Reason filed public records requests for a decade’s worth of disciplinary records against SROs in numerous Florida counties, including Palm Beach.
In most cases, sheriff’s departments charged several hundred dollars for the records. However, the Palm Beach Public School District responded with an estimated fee invoice for $20,060 to complete the request.
Other large agencies, like the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the Orlando Police Department, rejected the requests because they don’t track SROs separately in their systems.
Pasco County, however, a rural-suburban county of about 550,000 people north of Tampa Bay, is illustrative of some of the concerns that civil liberties groups have about expanding police presence in schools.
In December, a Pasco deputy threatened to shoot a high school student who was attempting to leave the campus in his car. The deputy and a school staffer had blocked the student from leaving, leading to a long standoff between both parties.
“You’re gonna get shot you come another fucking foot closer to me,” the deputy says at one point as the student tries to maneuver around him. “You run into me, you’ll get fucking shot.”
The student’s mother, who obtained body camera footage of the exchange, said her son had an orthodontist appointment that she’d notified the school of weeks in advance.
Last October, an SRO in the county was fired after he accidentally fired his gun in a middle school cafeteria. According to Pasco Sheriff’s Office disciplinary records, “Video surveillance captured him mishandling his agency issued firearm, which caused an accidental discharge. The projective entered and exited his uniform pants leg and struck the wall behind him; bullet fragments were located on the ground adjacent to the lunch line where students were standing at the time of the discharge.”
The Pasco Sheriff’s Office terminated another SRO, Milton Arroyo, in 2017 after an investigation found he was sending inappropriate text messages to several female students at the high school he patrolled. He was technically fired for a different offense, however: misusing a Florida state law enforcement database to search for confidential information on women he was interested in.
Local news outlets and the public didn’t know, though, that several months before Arroyo was fired, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office reprimanded him after he was caught on camera flipping someone off in the school cafeteria. Several parents filed a complaint against him, according to a disciplinary report.
The office reprimanded another Pasco SRO in 2019 after he physically restrained a student but failed to turn on his body camera or file an incident report.
Reason also obtained disciplinary records from Miami-Dade Schools Police Department. In 2014, officer Juan Cecchinelli was removed from his position after he sent sexually explicit texts to a teenage girl at the school he policed. An internal affairs summary notes that, during the department’s investigation, Cecchinelli “refused to answer why he had sex toys in his department assigned vehicle.”
Other incidents have popped up around the state. In February, a Miami-Dade Schools officer was caught on camera cursing at and threatening to shoot high school students. She has been placed on administrative leave while the department investigates.
Last November, an Orange County SRO was fired after video emerged of him pulling a middle school student’s hair. That same month, a Broward County sheriff’s deputy was arrested and charged with child abuse after video showed him body-slamming a 15-year-old girl at a school for children with special needs.
In March 2019, Duval County School Police (DCSP) fired an SRO after video showed him grabbing a high school girl by the neck and throwing her to the ground. According to public records obtained by Reason, three other DCSP members resigned in 2019 for “unbecoming conduct,” “failure to write a report,” and “actions or which may bring the DCSP into disrepute or ridicule.” One of them pointed a fake gun at a student with special needs. Three other DCSP members resigned in 2018 after one pawned his service weapon and the other two failed to report it.
It’s notable that in most of these incidents the officers were fired. Departments appear to have little stomach for such cases.
Although the Florida Department of Law Enforcement keeps records on decertified police officers, it does not track officers by role, so it’s unknown how many SROs have had their law enforcement license revoked over the years. However, using a USA Today database of decertified police officers, Reason identified 18 officers from Florida departments that exclusively police schools, such as the Miami-Dade Schools Police. They were decertified for offenses including cocaine possession, witness-dissuading, perjury, aggravated assault, and sexual harassment. In 2007, a Palm Beach School District police officer was arrested and decertified for allegedly handcuffing and sexually assaulting a woman.
“If You’re Going To Act Like a Fool, I’m Going To Treat You Like a Fool.”
In many ways, Evan is a typical 9-year-old boy. He likes riding his BMX bike, swimming, and surfing, and he has a menagerie of pets—four cats, a guinea pig, and three fish. Seiler says that if you passed her son on the street, the only thing you would notice about him would be his bright red hair.
But Evan is also on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. He’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia.
Evan attended Acreage Pines Elementary School, a public school in Palm Beach County, where he was in a classroom specifically for children with autism. Seiler also paid a private applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist to work with Evan 20 hours a week, including at school.
On August 30 of last year, Evan had a meltdown at school. He began throwing items and ripping up his schoolwork.
Jennifer Borr, a South Florida ABA specialist, says ABA therapists work to reinforce good behavior and decision making skills with young children.
Borr says children on the autism spectrum often have trouble communicating and struggle with what’s called “executive function skills”—things like regulating emotions and dealing with changes in routines. They’re also often sensitive to sensory stimuli like noises, lights, and touch.
This combination can lead to behavior seen as aggressive or dangerous by others, such as “stimming”—repetitive movements like banging their head—or acting out and hitting other people. However, Sam Crane, legal director for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, says the behavior, especially when physical boundaries are broached, is perfectly logical from the student’s point of view.
“A student might try to leave a classroom if it’s overstimulating,” she says. “The teacher might block them. The student panics and tries to push past the teacher, and then that’s seen as an assault or something along those lines.”
Evan’s ABA therapist took him outside the classroom, and eventually to the office, where the therapist and the school behavior counselor tried to calm him down.
In an internal company report filed after the incident, the therapist wrote that Evan “punched me in the chest and kicked me in the shin, threw chairs, [and] then sat down on green couch after [being] placed in a ‘bear hug.'”
At this point, Evan was sitting on a couch, and his tantrum was waning, according to the therapist. “Heavy breathing is an indicator of cooling down,” the report notes. School administrators were discussing filing a report on Evan’s physical outburst toward the therapist when things abruptly escalated.
According to the ABA therapist’s report, an SRO “tackled Evan to the ground and stated, ‘If you are going to act like a fool I am going to treat you like a fool’ and then said ‘you are coming with me’ while holding handcuffs, trying to place them around Evan’s wrists.”
The incident report says a teacher in the room “started to cry when Evan was brought to the ground by the officer, and she started to cover her face by holding a piece of paper while stating ‘I don’t understand why they are doing this.'”
Palm Beach County School District policies, as laid out in a “Baker Act decision tree protocol,” require that a student having a mental health crisis “remains in crisis and continues to exhibit behaviors which potentially meet Baker Act criteria” before escalating the situation further.
“I feel that the way the officer dealt with this situation was unnecessary because the tantrum behavior had ceased and was under control,” the therapist concluded.
Florida law enforcement arrested 8,153 students at K-12 schools in the 2018–2019 school year, according to state data, a small increase over the previous year.
Although Evan was led out of school in handcuffs and placed in the back of a police cruiser, his case would not appear in any state data on juvenile arrests, because rather than arrest him, the SRO attempted to involuntarily commit him to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation.
How the Baker Act Enables Police in Schools
Evan was detained under the Florida Health Act of 1971, commonly called the Baker Act. Under the law, a judge, doctor, or police officer can commit someone to an involuntary psychiatric evaluation for up to 72 hours.
Use of the Baker Act is common enough that, over the decades, the name has also become a verb—as in, to Baker Act someone, or get Baker Acted. Disability rights advocates allege use of the Baker Act against children has spiked since the Parkland shooting.
“We noticed that we’re getting a lot more calls from families of children who’ve been Baker Acted at school,” says Ann Siegel, an attorney with Disability Rights Florida.
Siegel and other advocates also say that, crucially, parents aren’t being given the opportunity to intervene before their children are removed from school.
“The parent is not called,” Siegel says. “If you look at the Baker Act statute, there’s a provision in there where you’re supposed to see if family intervention is a possibility.”
The Baker Act statute authorizes police to commit someone when their mental state makes them a threat to themselves or others. It also includes the clause, “and it is not apparent that such harm may be avoided through the help of willing family members or friends or the provision of other services.”
Palm Beach County School District’s protocols also recommend that schools “make every effort to include the parents/guardians in all phases of the process.”
But Seiler says she wasn’t contacted by Evan’s school until her son was already en route to a hospital. When the SRO finally called her, Seiler says he initially wouldn’t say where he was taking her son and told her not to come, since she wouldn’t be able to see him anyway.
When Florida resident William Terry’s autistic 11-year-old son was Baker Acted after hitting a teacher at Boca Raton Community Middle School while having a meltdown, Terry says his wife showed up at the school minutes after she was called but was not allowed to see her child.
“My wife, as you can imagine with a special needs kid, has got a very special bond with him, and she can usually calm him down,” Terry says. “All of his teachers know that, but they separated her from him.”
Instead, Terry’s son was handcuffed, sent to a hospital, and held for psychiatric evaluation for the full 72 hours allowed under the law. Terry says he and his wife were only allowed to visit their son for an hour a day during that time.
In March, school officials at Belcher Elementary School in Clearwater, Florida, called Tyeisha Harmon to tell her that her 7-year-old son, who has ADHD and a mental health disorder, was having a meltdown. He’d walked out into the parking lot after being moved into a new classroom—a change in routine that upset him.
“It took me about 20 minutes to get there,” Harmon says. “When I got there, I asked for my son, and they told me that he had been taken away about 15 minutes prior.”
Harmon says the SRO called her while she was en route to the hospital. When Harmon asked the officer why she’d Baker Acted the boy, the officer said that he had scratched her, and that her only options were to either charge him with a crime or commit him.
Harmon says her son was handcuffed so tightly that it left marks on his wrists that were still visible when she got him out of the psychiatric hospital four hours later.
“Part of the Baker Act says that a person has to be a danger to himself and others,” Harmon says. “My son was in a parking lot with a police officer and adults. What harm could he really do to call for a Baker Act?”
As for the rise in the number of Baker Act commitments, data back up what lawyers and advocates are seeing anecdotally. A Tampa Bay Times investigation found that children had been removed from Tampa-area schools via the Baker Act more than 7,500 times over the past seven years. A database built by the Times showed that the rate of commitments for local students rose 35 percent in just the last five years. Overall, the investigation found “glaring weaknesses in the system—from a lack of parental consent, to students being wrongly committed, to facilities that put students in harm’s way.”
The Times found cases like a sixth grader who was Baker Acted for joking to his friends, “Oh look, ropes. Time to hang myself.” Or a 13-year-old girl who was Baker Acted by an SRO for telling her friend she had argued with her mother and wanted to throw herself off the school bus.
In February, a 6-year-old girl in Duval County was Baker Acted after allegedly destroying school property and attacking staff. The girl has been previously diagnosed with a disruptive mood disorder. Her family claims she was injected with the antipsychotic drug Thorazine while committed.
A similar investigation last year by the Ft. Myers News-Press reported that there were a record 32,763 Baker Act commitments of children in 2017. About a quarter of those were removals from schools, according to a Florida Department of Children and Families report.
The data are incomplete, though. Unlike juvenile arrests, it’s unknown exactly how many Florida children are committed through the Baker Act because of disturbances at schools. “The problem with [the] Baker Act is the schools don’t have to report those numbers,” Seigel says. “They don’t even keep track of them.”
A Florida state legislator introduced a bill in January that would require schools to accurately report Baker Act commitments and require parents to be notified prior to a child’s removal.
The data that are available, though, suggest that while school arrests in Florida have been trending down, administrators and law enforcement are in many cases just substituting one mechanism for removing a child from school for another.
“Autistic kids are facing widespread problems with schools that are trying to find ways to segregate them and deny them the educational services that they’re entitled to,” says Crane.
Seiler finally arrived at the Palm Beach hospital where Evan had been taken. She says he was sitting quietly and repeating, “I want to go home.”
“I was absolutely terrified for him,” she says.
Seiler says a psychiatrist came and talked to Evan for a few minutes about cars—another of Evan’s interests—and concluded that he was just having a bad day. Evan was released back to his mother, and Seiler was charged a $250 copay for the involuntary emergency room visit.
Terry says he received a hospital bill for $5,000 for his son’s three-day commitment.
“The Most Unique Assignment in Law Enforcement”
Why a police officer would tackle and handcuff a third grader is one question. Another question is why the officer was in the school in the first place.
Police have been in American schools since the 1950s, but never with the frequency that they are now. Armed police officers were in just 1 percent of public schools in the 1970s, according to The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom that covers firearms. Federal data show that by the 2015–16 school year they were in 43 percent of all public schools and 71 percent of high schools.
National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) executive director Mo Canady says being an SRO is “the most unique assignment in law enforcement.”
“Officers that are going to be assigned in this particular field have got to be carefully selected,” Canady says. “It’s not for every officer. As a matter of fact, I might argue it’s not for most officers.”
The number of SROs in Florida has dramatically increased over the past two years, following the passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act in 2018.
The new law requires at least one police officer or armed guardian in every public elementary, middle, and high school in Florida. Most districts have opted for police, which has led to an expensive hiring rush for qualified officers in school districts across the state.
There are no national certification requirements for SROs. Standards vary from state to state, although NASRO offers best practices and training. Several states, such as Pennsylvania, require prospective officers to go through NASRO’s training.
In Florida, potential SROs are required to undergo a criminal background check, drug testing, and a psychological evaluation, in addition to being a state-certified law enforcement officer. The state’s attorney general’s office and several other organizations offer SRO training classes, starting at a basic 40-hour course, but there is no statute or state-level rule regarding SRO certification. The level of required training is left to individual police departments.
The police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota has intensified scrutiny of police hiring and qualification standards, and some districts are reconsidering their use of SROs entirely. HuffPost reported that, in addition to the Minneapolis school board severing its relationship with the city’s police department, a school board member in Denver plans on introducing a similar resolution, and officials are considering similar plans in “Arizona, North Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, New York, and Illinois.” A HuffPost investigation last year found that children have been tasered by SROs in at least 143 incidents since 2011.
SROs don’t write the laws, though. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, zero tolerance policies spread through schools across the country—first in response to drugs, then mass shootings—and Florida passed some of the harshest laws in the country.
After the passage of the federal Gun-Free School Act of 1994, Florida required all school districts to enforce zero tolerance policies for students who bring weapons to school, requiring students who violate the policy to be expelled for at least a year or referred to law enforcement. In 2000, the state legislature passed another package of juvenile justice bills, known as the “tough love” plan, that further reinforced this punitive model. School districts began to expand the scope of their zero tolerance policies beyond drugs and guns to petty misbehavior. While juvenile arrest rates in general were falling in the state—mirroring a nationwide drop—there were persistent and troubling racial disparities in school discipline and arrests, not to mention kids being charged with battery for shooting spitballs, or being expelled for bringing nail clippers to school, or dying at a military-style juvenile boot camp.
After a decade, Florida lawmakers reconsidered the wisdom of using the criminal justice system to dispense love. In 2009, the state legislature loosened those zero tolerance policies, amending the statutes to clarify that they “are not intended to be rigorously applied to petty acts of misconduct and misdemeanors, including, but not limited to, minor fights or disturbances.” School districts also began softening their disciplinary practices as backlash against the so-called school-to-prison pipeline grew.
Now the pendulum has swung back the other way again. Last year, as part of a bill codifying the recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, Florida lawmakers edited the statute yet again to remove the prohibition on using zero tolerance policies to police misdemeanors and minor disturbances. The Orlando Sentinelreported that Osceola County school officials now report all minor fights to police as a result of the changes.
Civil liberties groups argue the new laws and the safety commission’s recommendations threaten to bring back the bad days of zero tolerance, ushering in unproven safety policies and ignoring funding for things like more mental health services.
“We’ve heard, for instance, that down in Miami-Dade County there are over a dozen officers in the same school, while there’s only one or two mental health care providers,” says Bacardi Jackson, managing attorney for children’s rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit legal advocacy and civil rights organization.
Jackson says her organization put together a focus group of young women from about 10 different Miami-Dade high schools to talk about their experience with police on campus.
“It was very, very troubling,” she says. “A number of the girls expressed how powerless they felt when they felt that they had been mistreated by an SRO. When someone made an inappropriate comment, when someone looked at them in a way that made them feel very uncomfortable, they did not believe they had the ability to report that without having some severe consequences.”
The SPLC released a report in October arguing the commission’s recommendations “will place students at greater risk of getting shot and/or wrongfully arrested; put their privacy and liberty in jeopardy; strip them of civil rights; create school environments that are more tense, anxiety-provoking and traumatic; breed distrust between students and faculty; and absorb funds that could be used on programs that are actually shown to make schools safer for all students.”
Canady calls arguments that more SROs will necessarily result in more arrests “hogwash.”
“NASRO stands firmly on this,” he says. “Every school in this country could greatly benefit from a carefully selected, specifically trained SRO.”
In fact, Canady argues that well-trained SRO with a good relationship among students and staff act as “filters” that reduce the number of arrests.
“They are the ones who have built relationships in that school, and they recognize they have a lot of other resources around them,” Canady says. “Instead of having to arrest everybody for misdemeanors like disorderly conduct, there would be that relationship where the SRO can step back and allow the school to take action. That is by and large what good SROs do.”
One thing Canady and the SPLC do agree on, however, are zero tolerance policies.
“I’ve never been a fan of them because what they do, at best, is remove discretion for good administrators and for good law enforcement officers,” he says. “I can’t imagine being able to be productive as a law enforcement officer if I’m always faced with zero tolerance.”
While schools may voluntarily or involuntarily report misbehavior to police, Florida police do have discretion to issue civil citations to juveniles for first-time misdemeanor offenses. A civil citation funnels the case into diversion programs rather than the local prosecutor’s office. Florida is a national leader in pre-arrest diversion for youths.
But there is no uniformity. A December report from the Caruthers Institute found that, while police issued civil citations in 68 percent of juvenile cases involving first-time misdemeanors statewide—keeping thousands of kids out of the juvenile justice system—some counties used citations in less than half of eligible cases. Others, like Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties, issue civil citations to students in more than 90 percent of cases. The report says this results in “unequal justice by geography.”
An investigation by the Orlando Sentinel also reported wide racial disparities in school arrests and citations. For example, the newspaper found that black students in Seminole County made up 15 percent of the student population, but they represented 80 percent of the school-related disorderly conduct incidents involving first-time offenders and 41 percent of misdemeanor assaults and batteries.
And it found that the trend of declining in-school arrests had reversed in several central Florida counties, with Lake County posting a five-year high for school-related arrests in the 2018–2019 school year.
No police department or school wants to be accused of not doing enough to prevent a mass shooting, especially after Parkland.
In February, school officials in Seminole County subjected a 5-year-old boy to a threat assessment after he allegedly told a classmate, “I wish someone killed you.” Although they determined the threat wasn’t credible, the incident will stay in the county’s threat assessment database for 25 years.
Last October, a police officer in Overland Park, Missouri, handcuffed and arrested an eighth grader who had formed her fingers into a pretend gun and pointed them at her classmates. Overland Park’s police chief put it bluntly to The Kansas City Star: “I’ll take the heat all day long for arresting a 13-year-old. I’m not willing to take the heat for not preventing a school tragedy.”
The Florida Sheriffs Association and the Florida Association of School Resource Officers did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Keeping Schools Safe Without Militarization
In March, 6-year-old Kaia Rolle, whose arrest at school sparked national outrage, watched from the gallery of the Florida House of Representatives as lawmakers unanimously passed legislation inspired by her ordeal.
The law wouldn’t have banned the arrests of small children, though. Instead, it would have required police departments to create policies surrounding arrests of children under 10. The legislation died in the state Senate anyway.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” Rolle’s grandmother, Meralyn Kirkland, told the Orlando Sentinel. “My family went through so much when Kaia was arrested…and we’re still going through it. One of the biggest passions for me right now is seeing that no other family, no other child goes through what Kaia’s going through and what we’re going through.”
Today’s school discipline often shifts wildly from crisis to crisis. A more tenable solution would be to strike a balance that keeps schools safe without militarizing them. Schools should stop treating misbehavior that used to warrant a trip to the principal’s office like criminal offenses. Borderline cases shouldn’t be punished out of fear or absurd zero tolerance policies.
And the effects of any such changes should be rigorously tracked, with an eye on how they are used on the most vulnerable students.
Neither Evan nor Terry’s son returned to their schools after they were Baker Acted. Both started sleeping in their parents’ beds again. Terry’s son is homeschooled now. Evan attends a private school, where his mother says he is doing well.
“He doesn’t talk about a whole lot of things, so we don’t really know what he’s carrying in there in his brain,” Seiler says. “We’ll get past this, but this should never have happened.”
Seiler filed a complaint against the SRO who allegedly tackled Evan. According to Seiler’s attorney, Palm Beach Schools Police Department launched an internal affairs investigation into the incident, but Seiler is still waiting for the results.
Terry says the teacher pressed assault charges against his son, who received a deferred adjudication in youth court, meaning the case will be dismissed if his son stays out of trouble for a certain amount of time.
Harmon has retained a lawyer and is planning to sue.
Seiler’s lawyer says that children with disabilities who are Baker Acted often have nightmares and regress in terms of behavior, not to mention the blow they take to their perception of themselves.
“When you are 9 years old and you’ve been told all your life that police officers arrest the bad people, and suddenly you find yourself in the back of a police car for behavior that you couldn’t control because you’re a child with a disability, what do you think about yourself now?”
Palm Beach Schools Police Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story. The principal of Acreage Pines Elementary directed a request for comment to Palm Beach School District’s director of communications, who declined to comment, citing federal privacy laws for students.
Both Seiler and Terry struggled with the decision to share their stories and attach their names to them, but in the end, they both did it for the same reason.
“The real reason I picked up the call is I said, if my experience can help just one family, it’d be worth it,” Terry says. “So that’s my hope.”
“It’s appalling, just appalling that this stuff goes on and no one seems to care,” Seiler says. “These kids are falling through the cracks. If this prevents any other kid and family from going through this, then yeah, that’s worth it.”