These things DO happen to little white girls, too. For example, in 1999, a similar thing happened to Samantha Long, when she was 8.
Samantha was . . . a third-grader who weighed about 60 pounds and has attention deficit disorder and other conditions. She was accused of pushing a teacher's aide, and taken to a "secure seclusion room," a common feature in SED classes. Each of these closet-sized rooms has white walls, a small glass window that can be covered with paper and a safety lock on the door. The idea is to let children throw their tantrums inside, away from sights and sounds that might make them even more aggravated and out of control.Indeed, Ja'eisha's story is far from unique. In the fiscal year 1999-2000 4,575 children under 12 were charged with crimes in Florida. That number does not include children like Jai'eisha who are punitively threatened by police and handcuffed but not charged with any crime. Before we even get to the question or race, we've got to wonder why NONE of the news reports place Ja'eisha's story in the context of statewide policies that criminalize children.
Samantha, dressed in the school's navy and white uniform, didn't want to go into the room. She complained when the teacher's aide who was taking her to the room started removing Samantha's pink-and-white sneakers. She kicked and screamed.
Those kicks earned her an arrest on a felony charge of battery on a school official and a trip to the Juvenile Assessment Center in handcuffs, according to a police report. Samantha was eventually put in a pre-trial diversion program, and told to help her mother around the house.
In recent decades, the Florida Legislature has toughened its juvenile justice laws. It has pumped up Florida's boot camps and vowed that kids would be punished, not coddled, by a newly formed Department of Juvenile Justice. . . .This is the legal architecture for turning small children into felons, but Florida's educational and juvenile justice systems go further, restraining small children with handcuffs during interventions to "help" or "protect" them or when administering basic discipline.
This overall crackdown -- largely aimed at teens -- also has had an impact on younger children. . . .
Although a normal battery would be a misdemeanor, the Legislature decided in 1986 that students who commit this same crime against a school employee should be guilty of a felony. School employees can include teachers, aides, bus drivers and others.
The law may make sense when you imagine a 150-pound high school student slugging his spindly math instructor.
But the same law applied to Ruben Toledo, when he was 7 years old and 65 pounds.
And to a 6-year-old boy arrested at Sutherland Elementary School in Palm Harbor in May 1999. He slapped a teacher in the face, knocking off her glasses, and kicked two teachers in the shins. An officer tried to read the boy his rights, but stopped because "I don't feel that he fully understood them." The 6-year-old was arrested and taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center.
Not every change in the juvenile justice system has been designed to punish young criminals more. Over the past decade, the state has set up 17 Juvenile Assessment Centers, or JACs, designed to meet children's needs better.I can think of no way to justify this application of Florida law to make it easier to charge children under 12 with felonies. But the liberal use of handcuffs for simple discipline or when transporting children to Juvenile Assessment Centers is an equally serious problem. This heinous practice sends the message to children that all deviations from rules and expectations are, in reality, criminal behavior. You don't ever have to be one of the handcuffed children to understand that to disobey or disappoint is criminal.
At these centers, officials can check arrest and school records, and they have time to ask the youths about substance abuse and mental health issues. It's a first step toward getting at the root causes of kids' troubles, an approach hailed by child advocates.
The irony is that when kids are transported to a JAC, they usually come in handcuffs. In Pinellas, that's the center's policy for all delinquent kids -- even if they're 6 or 7. An 8-year-old Pinellas Park boy last month was restrained in a "hobble," a device that encircled his ankles and connected them to a pair of handcuffs behind his back. . . .
The same philosophy applies in schools, when disruptive children need to be removed from class, said David W. Friedberg, director of security services for Hillsborough County schools. He said handcuffing children "is not being done in a punitive sense. . . ."
Fifteen states have taken a different approach entirely, by adopting laws that prevent children under a certain age from being formally charged and prosecuted in juvenile court. In North Carolina, no one under 6 can be charged; in 11 states, the minimum age for prosecution is 10.
But Florida has no minimum age.
Linda Osmundson of the Center Against Spouse Abuse, which is one of the partners in Peacemakers, a Pinellas County anti-violence program for children, has said,
If we can figure out how to teach children at that age to express their needs with their words, and with positive actions and not violent actions, we may be planting a seed that affects them through their life.When school officials and police handcuff children who express their needs through acting out, the adults teach the children that their needs are illegitimate and criminal. Handcuffing also plants a seed that affects children throughout their lives—a poisonous seed planted by a state that hates its children.
Photo: Samantha Long, 9, works on her homework with her mom, Linda. (St. Petersburg Times)
What's Race Got To Do With It?