A push to remove police from within schools is among the hot button issues in this season of nationwide protest. But in Florida, an inconsistent assortment of local policies determine whether a child can be arrested for misbehaving in school, the Orlando Sentinel reported in a special investigative article, “Little Criminal.”
In Orlando, a police body camera recorded a six-year-old crying and pleading for help as she was handcuffed and placed in back of a police squad car for allegedly “disturbing the peace and resisting arrest without violence.” Following outrage over the arrest, State Senator Randolph Bracy (D-Ocoee), filed a bill to set a minimum age for arrest, but infighting between the state’s house and senate stalled the bill.
“There are people, unfortunately, who believe we should be able to arrest 12-year-olds, 10-year-olds and even 8-year-olds,” Bracy told the Sentinel. “It was already quite a task to get them to agree to set the age to six years old. That’s just how things are done in Florida.”
Policies for school arrest are set at the local level by police agencies, school districts and judicial courts. They determine when children can be arrested for schoolyard fights, threats and other minor crimes—or given a civil citation. In several Florida counties, Black students are at a greater risk of arrest, according to the article.
“Research shows that all races and ethnicities act out at about similar rates, but the punishments are so much harsher for Black youth in particular,” said Kelly Welch, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Villanova University who researches school discipline. “It’s really the stereotype of youth of color being older [than their actual age] that can make disciplinary and arrest decisions harsher.”
In 2018-19, Black students in Orange County were roughly 25% of the school population but represented 60% of the school-related disorderly conduct incidents. In Seminole County, black students were 15% of the student population but represented 80% of the school-related disorderly conduct incidents.
“That pipeline between schools and the justice system is full of racial disparity,” said LeRoy Pernell, a former dean and professor at Florida A&M University College of Law. “But it really ultimately needs to be in conjunction with getting our system to consider more ways of dealing with kids than calling the police on them,” he told Sentinel reporters.
One Black teenager at Seminole High School was stunned by a police taser after he and another Black student were told not hang out at the bottom of the stairwell. At a middle school in Osceola County, an officer used a leg sweep on a youth to take him to the ground and stop a fight in front of a group of other students, the article stated. The student was charged with conspiring to disrupt a school function and obstructing an officer without violence.
“It’s not like the kids don’t know they’re not supposed to fight on campus, but it’s not just ‘meet me behind the bleachers’ anymore,’” said Lt. Michael Marden, of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office and President of the Florida Association of School Resource Officers. “It’s ‘I’m going to do it so I have an audience.’”
Marden thinks officers should have the last word on when to make an arrest or issue a citation. The citation program is an alternative to arrest that leaves the student without a criminal record. But its use across the state lacks consistency, while the stigma of being arrested and labeled a “little criminal” can have lasting effects, noted the report.
“When one child is getting a civil citation in one county and then another child is getting arrested in the next [county] for the exact same crime…it becomes difficult to make an argument for use of civil citation,” said Christian Minor, executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice.
Four Central Florida counties, Orange, Seminole, Lake and Osceola, in combination, arrested three times as many students between the ages of 10 and 17 at schools, bus stops, on a bus and at off-campus events than Miami-Dade County, which has the same number of students in that age group.
The Sentinel pointed out that Florida’s recent policies related to school policing can be traced to the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which left 17 people dead. After the shooting the state passed laws to require officers or armed guards at every public or charter school.
“After some of these mass shootings at schools, everyone is understandably very concerned about wanting to do something,” said Welch of Villanova University. “This seems like a quick and easy fix, but it does nothing to decrease school violence. What it does is it criminalize more students.”
As the debate over school policing continues, law enforcement agencies and youth advocates do agree on one thing: An effective intervention process must be in place to help kids with behavioral problems, substance abuse issues and mental health concerns.
“I think training officers about how to productively interact with kids, how to protect kids, would be very useful,” said Welch. “But I don’t think they can focus only on that. I think there also needs to be a balanced approach so that teachers or administrators feel empowered to help their own students,” she concluded.