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Pembroke Pines police vehicle
Pembroke Pines Police Department

Florida Cops Nearly Sent a Five-Year-Old to Jail

by Nneka Ewulonu

Five-year-olds get away with a lot of things: inquisitive-yet-annoying questions, bluntness bordering on impoliteness, or being sticky all the time, for example. Generally speaking, we give children a pass for acts of cruelty or selfishness because they are, obviously, children, and their brains are not fully developed. But when a special-needs 5-year-old in South Florida injured their pre-K teacher in early March, local media outlets seemed unable to offer the unnamed youth a basic level of humanity.

Instead, some reporters entertained the notion that a toddler deserved prison time. “No Charges for 5-Year-Old Who Left Teacher Hospitalized in Pembroke Pines School Attack,” read one particularly outrageous NBC 6 South Florida headline.

The case perfectly exemplifies America’s absurd belief that prisons are the best—or only—way society can deal with humans who hurt other humans. According to reports, two students, ages 4 and 5, began throwing items around a pre-K classroom at Pines Lakes Elementary School in Pembroke Pines, Florida. A teacher responded by taking the 5-year-old to a separate room to cool down. Once there, the child allegedly attacked the teacher, leaving the adult wheezing and unable to speak. The teacher was then transported to the hospital and needed to be intubated. This was the third instance in which the student had injured that same teacher.

But, rather than report the incident as an unfortunate accident or a sign that Broward County Schools need to change their policies when dealing with special-needs kids, media outlets were only able to see the incident through a carceral lens. Reporters responded by posting the police incident report and suggesting the small child could “face a charge of aggravated assault.” Police and prosecutors ultimately decided not to send the toddler to jail.

The degree to which the child injured this teacher is undoubtedly egregious, and there is no question an intervention is merited. But the idea of pursuing criminal charges against such a young child should be unthinkable. Society’s insistence on viewing harms solely through a carceral lens limits our ability to pursue meaningful, harm-reduction interventions in young people’s lives. As a result, more than 30,000 children under the age of 10 were arrested between 2013 and 2018, according to FBI data.

The public school system is deeply intertwined with the prison industrial complex. While the race of the child in Pembroke Pines was not reported, racism and over-policing within the legal and schooling systems created the context for this incident regardless. Black and Hispanic public students are disproportionately likely to experience school disciplinary action such as suspension or expulsion. A 2021 paper by researchers from Boston University, the University of Colorado, and Harvard University found that students who go to schools with high suspension rates are 3.2 percent more likely to be arrested and 2.5 percent more likely to be incarcerated as an adult. Black students are also disproportionately referred to law enforcement and subsequently arrested.

The American Civil Liberties Union states that more than 60,000 children are housed in juvenile detention centers or residential treatment facilities each day. These facilities often exhibit the same issues as adult facilities, including poor rehabilitative measures and education resources, solitary confinement, and sexual abuse. Inequality is also present: Black and Hispanic youth are more likely to be detained, imprisoned for longer periods, and sent to solitary confinement compared to white children. It’s therefore unsurprising that the juvenile justice system has the same abysmal outcomes. When compared to children who are given less disruptive consequences such as home monitoring, youth who experience incarceration are 13 percent less likely to graduate high school and 22 percent more likely to be incarcerated in prison as an adult.

Underlying every factor is the insidious reality that Black kids are robbed of their innocence and youth starting from an early age. Americans view Black boys over the age of 10 as older and less innocent than white boys of the same age, while Black girls as young as age 5 are viewed as less innocent and more mature than white girls of the same age, according to studies by the American Psychological Association and Georgetown University Law Center, respectively. In addition to the adultification of Black kids, racialized anger bias results in Black boys and girls’ facial expressions being more likely to be interpreted as angry as compared to white childrens’ facial expressions, according to research by North Carolina State University.

These pervasive implicit biases often have outlandish consequences. In early 2021, police in Rochester, New York, made national news for pepper spraying a suicidal 9-year-old girl while responding to a 911 call. As the officers struggled to get the girl in the patrol car, an officer told her she was “acting like a child,” to which she replied, “I am a child!”

These biases can also have lethal outcomes. On November 22, 2014, a Cleveland park-goer called 911 about a kid playing with a gun. Even though the caller stated that the weapon was “probably fake,” law enforcement arrived at the park and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice within seconds of seeing him. Officer Timothy Loehmann would later justify the shooting before a grand jury by stating that he thought that Rice was 18 years old, robbing Rice of both six years of his childhood and his life.

The adultification of Black youth in combination with society’s reverence for incarceration results in a landscape where criminally charging a five-year-old child of any race is an idea that can be entertained. In an era where school shootings have become commonplace and our remaining time on a habitable earth diminishes, kids — especially Black kids — deserve the chance to grow and make mistakes without facing the threat of a derailed future.


In the news

Contact us at newsletter@theappeal.org so we can feature your work here.

In Texas, Lizelle Herrera was charged with murder for a “self-induced abortion.” The Starr County District Attorney has dropped the charges. To follow this case and learn how to support people seeking abortions in Texas, please follow @LaFronteraFund. [Pablo De La Rosa, Carolina Cuellar, Dan Katz, Fernando Ortiz Jr. / Texas Public Radio]

Mayor Eric Adams’ anti-crime units are mostly arresting people for low-level crimes like drug possession and driving with a suspended license, according to an investigation by City & State. [Sara Dorn / City and State]

Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies frequently punch incarcerated people in the head, and in September forced people to stay undressed for hours, according to the court-appointed monitor’s report. [Sam Levin / The Guardian]

The American Rescue Plan Act sent billions of dollars to states to help them respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. California cities spent millions of it on law enforcement. [Sam Levin / The Guardian] [See also: Brian Dolinar reports on how pandemic relief funds went to pad bloated law enforcement budgets.]

Unable to secure lethal injection drugs, South Carolina is planning to execute Richard Moore by firing squad or electrocution. People executed by firing squad will be strapped to a chair, a hood placed over their head, and a small aim point will be placed on their heart. [Maurice Chammah / The Marshall Project]

Ketanji Brown Jackson will be the first Black woman and the first public defender to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate voted to confirm her in a 53 to 47 vote, mostly on party lines. Former public defender Premal Dharia wrote about why Jackson’s experience will make her a needed addition to the Court. [Premal Dharia / CNN]


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