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The Officer Who Arrested A 6-Year-Old Was Fired But Don’t Expect Much Change

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal. Meralyn Kirkland got a call last Thursday about her granddaughter, Kaia Rolle. She was told that the 6-year-old girl had been arrested at her Orlando charter school and was […]

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

Meralyn Kirkland got a call last Thursday about her granddaughter, Kaia Rolle. She was told that the 6-year-old girl had been arrested at her Orlando charter school and was going to be taken to a juvenile facility. She reacted the way one might expect. “I say, ‘What do you mean she was arrested?’ ” Kirkland told WKMG. There was “an incident,” Kirkland was told. Kaia had “kicked somebody and she’s being charged.”

Kirkland said that Kaia has sleep apnea and was acting out that day because of how little sleep she had gotten. Kaia was taken to the principal’s office where it was reported that a staff member grabbed her wrists. That’s when Kaia tried to squirm away and ended up kicking someone. Officer Dennis Turner then put the 6-year-old in handcuffs. She was taken to the juvenile justice center, where her mugshot and fingerprints were taken.

By this standard, of course, every child should be in central bookings right now for battery of one sort or another. This might be an amusing thought, if it weren’t for the fact that not one but two 6-year-olds were put through the very real trauma of arrest by the same officer on the same day last week.

Yesterday, Officer Dennis Turner was fired. But this should not be comforting. His dismissal may, in fact, encourage a false sense of complacency, convincing people that because a bad apple was removed, the barrel is now that much better. But Kaia’s arrest is not about bad apples; it’s about a system that is itself rotten to its core.

Years ago, after a school resource officer (SRO) approached a high-school girl who refused to follow school rules, ripped her from her chair, threw her past rows of desks, and body-slammed her to the ground, the SRO was fired. Not much changed. Nor did much change after an 8-year-old boy was cuffed above the elbows by a different SRO, or when another SRO was called to stop a gym fight and ended up choking a 14-year-old boy to the floor. “There are about 19,000 sworn police officers stationed in schools nationwide, according to U.S. Department of Justice estimates, and stories about their school-discipline disasters cross Mo Canady’s desk all the time,” reported Mark Keierleber for The Atlantic in 2015. “The first thing I do is search our database to see ‘Did this person come through our training?’” said Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which offers specialized training to SROs—primarily on a voluntary basis. “And the answer is consistently ‘no.’”

Many argue that SROs lack the proper training needed to interact with children, especially when those children are Black, Latinx, or disabled. Those students, advocates say, are “being funneled from the classroom to the courtroom.” In the 2011-12 school year, Black students were 16 percent of the total student enrollment but 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students involved in a school-related arrest, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights data. “Students with disabilities represented about 12 percent of the total student population but accounted for a quarter of those arrested and referred to law enforcement, 75 percent of those who were physically restrained at school and 58 percent of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement,” Keierleber writes. “A range of factors may cause variations in student discipline rates, but research suggests racial disparities are not caused by more misbehavior, but because ‘racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.’”

Despite a significant movement against mass incarceration, when it comes to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” many factors have actually worsened over the last five years. In Florida, where Kaia was arrested, in response to the 2018 Parkland shooting, the state passed a law requiring law enforcement officers to be present at every school campus. (This law seems particularly ill-advised given that the SRO on duty at the time of the shooting has become famous for his cowardice. When the shooting began, he chose not to enter the school and instead retreated to a safe area and told first responders to keep their distance.)

“Over the last 20 years there has been an explosion in the number of police officers stationed in schools. This has been one of the most dramatic and clearly counterproductive expansions of police scope and power in postwar America,” sociologist Alex Vitale argues in The Nation. “Abundant research shows that having police in schools does nothing to reduce crime, contributes to an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and, most importantly, is at the center of the criminalization of young people of color.” In a 2011 study, the Justice Policy Institute concluded that we should “remove all law enforcement officers from schools.”

Law enforcement presence in schools is only one layer of the problem. Florida is among the approximately two-thirds of states that has no minimum age for arrest. Thirteen states have no minimum age for adult prosecution of crimes. Which means anyone could be thrown into adult court. The youngest person ever arrested in Florida was 4 years old. “The Orange County tot, not yet in kindergarten, was the youngest of a group of five children arrested on felony burglary and misdemeanor criminal mischief charges for breaking into and vandalizing a neighbor’s shed in August 2010,” reports the Sun Sentinel.

And judges, who could stop this behavior, don’t. A federal appellate court recently decided a case where a 7-year-old was being teased “incessantly,” and in response the boy, K.W.P., “yelled at the classmate” and expressed his wish for a physical confrontation, while acknowledging that such a confrontation was not allowed. A security guard was called. K.W.P. didn’t want to go outside with the officer but did so anyway. He said he was “crying real loud” and “screaming,” and recalled “jerking [his] body away” when the officer grabbed his wrist because, as the boy put it, he has “a problem with people just grabbing [his] wrists and like trying to make [him] go somewhere.” The officer handcuffed the second-grader behind his back until his father arrived at the school. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that neither the officer nor the principal of the school violated the little boy’s constitutional rights and dismissed a lawsuit against them.

And as Matthew Segal of the ACLU of Massachusetts points out on Twitter, another reason that 6-year-olds are being arrested is the case Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, where, in 2001, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment does not forbid warrantless arrests for minor offenses. In that case, the arrest was for a misdemeanor seatbelt violation, that was punishable only by a fine, not jail time. “If an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has committed even a very minor criminal offense in his presence, he may, without violating the Fourth Amendment, arrest the offender,” wrote Justice David Souter for the Court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in dissent, wrote that the ruling “cloaks the pointless indignity that Gail Atwater suffered with the mantle of reasonableness.”

Kaia, the Florida child who was arrested last week, lives in a jurisdiction that has a prosecutor who has vowed not to prosecute children. “I refuse to play any role in the school to prison pipeline,” State Attorney Aramis Ayala said. “The criminal process ends here today. The children will not be prosecuted.”

This should not be necessary. When Kaia’s grandmother explained to Officer Turner that Kaia had a sleep disorder, he responded, “Well, I have sleep apnea, and I don’t behave like that.” That kind of response is logically incoherent—some people are predisposed to criminal acts after trauma, brain injury, or drug dependence; the fact that others do not end up committing crimes does not make this correlation any less strong for those who do. Just because Justice Sonia Sotomayor became a Supreme Court Justice after growing up in what are now called the Sotomayor projects does not mean that everyone who lives there will do the same. In fact, such an outcome is impossible. Beyond incoherence, the officer’s response is also heartless. When children break rules, we ask why. And we ask how we can help. Firing Turner did nothing to make our system more likely to respond in this way. But police, prosecutors, and judges could, starting today, bring that attitude to all cases. Then we might start to see a change.