Yesterday, the St. Petersburg, FL Police Department issued a report concerning the allegations that Officers Mark Williams and Nicholas Lazzari were guilty of "Inefficiency / Conduct Unbecoming an Employee [CUBE]" when they handcuffed five-year-old Ja'eisha Scott at Fairmount Elementary School last March in St. Petersburg. While the resultant change in police and school policy concerning children in kindergarden through third grade is good, the focus on the conduct of the officers avoids the real questions about what is happening inside the Pinellas County Schools.
Police Department investigators found that
Some department violations were committed by the officers involved. For example, Officer Williams did not properly check out on the radio on three different occasions during these events. A more in-depth and thorough investigation should have been conducted prior to taking Ja'Eisha into custody. Officer Lazzari stated in his police report and then verbally to a supervisor that he felt the Baker Act [pdf] would have been appropriate. However, he should have recognized that Ja'Eisha did not qualify as a Baker Act.
Ultimately, the final disposition was the proper one. Ja'Eisha was released to her mother at the scene. She had not been transported from the school grounds at any time. No charges were filed and no referrals were made.
Both charges were sustained against Officer Williams and the charge of inefficiency was sustained against Officer Lazzari, but the Police Department has taken no disciplinary action against them. Rather, the St. Petersburg Police Department has issued a revision of its Juvenile Procedures:
In essence, supervisors will become involved in the disposition of children under the age of eight (8) prior to them being taken into custody. Our Legal Division will also be publishing a Legal Notice to all personnel indicating that in our Circuit Court, children less than eight (8) years of age are generally not prosecuted for crimes. Our Youth Resources Division has been tasked with working with the school system to develop some training for the patrol officer in dealing with small children who are displaying violent or disruptive behavior.
Th police investigation "found no evidence of racism by the officers." I've written extensively about the racism inherent in this story and about Florida's child-hating juvenile policy. However, I'd like to return to another theme of my reporting on Ja'eisha Scott case—the cover-up of the school's role in Ja'eisha's abuse, especially the role of Assistant Principal Nicole Dibenedetto.
When I was writing about this story in April, I noted that there were two conflicting accounts as to whether Ms. Dibenedetto pursued any measures other than calling St. Petersburg Police. An early report said Ms. Dibenedetto attempted to call Pinellas Schools police, but there was a mix up and someone in the school office called the city police instead. A later report stated that "the school called city police again after Pinellas schools police could not come," suggesting that the school did, in fact, call and get through to the school police.
In the Executive Summary of the St. Petersburg Police Memorandum on the allegations concerning "Inefficiency / Conduct Unbecoming an Employee," published in yesterday's SP Times, there is a detailed description of the chain of actions that led to city police coming to Fairmount Elementary School on a call concerning Ja'eisha Scott, the week before the handcuffing that was captured on video.
On March 8, 2005, Ja'Eisha engaged in inappropriate conduct in her classroom. An attempt was made by school staff to contact her mother and grandmother to respond to the school, but neither of them were immediately available to respond. The staff contacted Pinellas County Schools police and attempted to get them to respond as Ja'Eisha was becoming more disruptive. They had no one immediately available to respond, and the St. Petersburg Police Department was contacted to respond. The Communications Center processed the call, but before it was dispatched, a patrol supervisor was contacted, and the supervisor appropriately canceled the call. The school was recontacted and was advised police would not be responding. Historically, the Pinellas County Schools police would handle all calls for service at public elementary schools if the call did not involve drugs, weapons or other similar situations.
Yet in the Executive Summary account of March 14, when Ja'eisha Scott was handcuffed and video taped, there is no explanation of what led to the police dispatch of officers to the school. The account begins with the officers hearing from the dispatcher in their cruisers.
On March 14, 2005, Officers Nicholas Lazzari and Joshua Hanes were dispatched to a "Disorderly Juvenile." The dispatcher said, "It looks like it's a battery on a school official by a 5-year-old." The dispatcher also mentioned "Ja'Eisha Scott" by name while broadcasting the call. Because they were familiar with her, Officers Williams and Westerman rightly responded to assist. The officers arrived at the same time, and while walking toward the office, Officer Williams told Officers Lazzari and Hanes that he had contact with Ja'Eisha in the past involving a similar incident in which she destroyed property and battered a school employee. Officer Lazzari said Officer Williams indicated to him that this child may need to go to jail.
What is Fairmount Elementary School trying to hide? Why are the police colluding in keeping murky the facts of what happened inside the school while Ja'eisha Scott was having her famous tantrum?
The new rules announced yesterday are a positive development:
Under the new rules announced Thursday, dispatchers who take calls involving students in kindergarten through third grade must first ask if Pinellas Schools Police have been contacted. Superintendent Clayton Wilcox has directed principals at the district's elementary schools to do the same.
If school police have been reached, city police will not be sent except in "aggravating, extreme circumstances," according to the policy.
And even in those cases, officers must consult a supervisor before taking a child into custody. The supervisor will consider alternative ways of resolving the conflict, including calling a parent and using de-escalation techniques.
These procedures should help the schools avoid future police handling of children from kindergarden to third grade. But these are bare minimum measures that do not even go so far as to protect children who are in grades 4-8. There is a documented problem with Pinellas County (and the rest of Florida) criminalizing children under 12.
Most essentially, however, the focus on the police and not on the school diverts attention from profound problems concerning racism and anti-child policies in the Pinellas County schools. Without a public commitment to telling the truth about what happened to Ja'eisha Scott—and about what happens to other children, especially what happens to African American children, in Pinellas County schools—there is no real hope for progress.
- St. Petersburg Police Bind Hands And Feet Of 5-Year-Old African-American Girl
- Arresting Children Under 12 In Florida
- Discerning The Social Fabric Of St. Petersburg, Florida (I)
- Discerning The Social Fabric Of St. Petersburg, Florida (II)
- What Is Going On In The Pinellas County Schools??
- Accounts Of Police Involvement In Ja'eisha Scott Case Raise New Questions About Assist. Principal Dibenedetto's Intent
- "I think they were good people . . . [Ja'eisha] didn't act like that over here."
- Criminalizing Children In Florida
- What's Race Got To Do With It?
- They Kept Ja'eisha Cuffed In Their Cruiser For Hours After Her Mom Arrived