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Florida elementary schoolers’ arrests alarm justice officials

  • Orlando Sentinel
  • Published Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, at 7:30 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, at 8:38 a.m.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Janay Jelks loves singing, coloring and Dora the Explorer. She’s 12 but has the mental age of a preschooler.

She also has a felony rap sheet.

Janay has been arrested three times since September at Cherokee School, an Orlando elementary school designed to be a safe place for the youngest Orange County students with severe emotional problems.

She’s not alone. Since the start of school in August, police have arrested 11 students a total of 14 times at Cherokee, which has an enrollment of 57.

That’s nearly one in five students.

The spate of arrests, which includes at least nine felony charges, has alarmed Orange County’s juvenile justice community and prompted a judge to meet with the school’s principal.

It is “ridiculous” to criminalize students for behavior that is tied to their disabilities, said Olga Telleria-Khoudmi, juvenile division chief for the Orange/Osceola Public Defender’s Office.

“That’s not the way to deal with these kids,” Telleria-Khoudmi said, noting an arrest can follow children for the rest of their lives. “You have to have a little bit of tolerance. … You’re not dealing with a regular school.”

Janay was charged with felonies for poking a police officer with her finger, throwing small plastic blocks in her teacher’s face and hitting her principal, according to interviews and arrest affidavits. In Florida, any battery on a teacher or law enforcement officer is a felony, even if there is no injury.

“I’m just really shocked. Really? Felony assault?” said Letasha Brown, Janay’s mother.

Circuit Judge Alicia Latimore, one of three judges who handles juvenile delinquency cases in Orange, was so concerned about the arrests that she visited Cherokee’s campus this fall.

The arrests at Cherokee outnumber the arrests of students at Orange’s 121 other public elementary schools combined.

“I’m not saying that children should be able to hit or batter freely, but it should be taken into account that children are placed in Cherokee for a reason,” Latimore said.

Most of the cases involved a single slap, punch or kick and did not cause injury, she said.

“They have the right to contact law enforcement,” Latimore added. “I just wish the staff and the teachers would not choose to do it so frequently.”

Some Cherokee students arrested this fall face felony charges for accusations that include throwing a soda bottle at a teacher; hitting and kicking staff members; and threatening employees with a sharpened pencil, arrest affidavits show. Two other arrests were for incidents that happened off campus.

Cherokee Principal Carol-Ann Clenton-Martin said she never wants to have students arrested but sometimes it’s necessary. The school has had kids arrested in the past, but not this many.

The school typically calls police, she said, only when a student can’t be calmed down after 20 to 30 minutes of “intense” behavior. Her staff members are trained to physically restrain children who pose an imminent danger to themselves or others. They have used those techniques 53 times this fall, records show.

But in a school with students with troubling behaviors, law enforcement is sometimes needed, she said, saying that some of her staff have been injured by students in the past few months. Some, she noted, also have declined to press charges against their students.

“I’m charged with taking care of children and keeping them safe and providing them with an education,” said Clenton-Martin, who is in her first year running Cherokee after serving as an assistant principal at a school for older students with emotional disabilities. “Nobody wants to see a child arrested.”

Orange Superintendent Barbara Jenkins said her staff is looking into the issue.

“Of course we’re concerned with an increase in arrests at Cherokee,” particularly because of the special needs of the children there, she said. We need to “see if we can bring some remedy to those increases.”

When elementary school students are taken into custody, many of them are so small that the handcuffs slip off their wrists. It’s “traumatic,” and some sob in fear, said Steve Dalsemer, director of the Juvenile Assessment Center, where arrested Orange County children are processed.

During his arrest in September for punching a staff member, a 10-year-old Cherokee student said: “I’m sorry for hitting you. Please don’t send me to jail,” according to his arrest affidavit.

He has been held in jail overnight several times after arrests at school, his mother said, The older boys in his cellblock encouraged him to say his prayers before going to sleep. She asked not to be named because her son has several pending court cases.

When students such as those from Cherokee are arrested, they are usually found incompetent to stand trial, making their involvement in the criminal justice system a waste of resources and time, Latimore said. Adequately funded mental-health services would be better than time spent in police cars, detention and court, she added.

One of Janay’s cases already has been dropped, and her mother said their attorney told her the girl won’t be found competent to be tried in the other two.

When Janay got to the assessment center, staffers gave her coloring books to keep her calm while she waited for her mother.

“It was like having a 3- or 4-year-old in a jail, which isn’t appropriate,” Dalsemer said.

At home, Janay greets visitors with a smile and asks them to sign their names and put their phone numbers in her composition book. She is eager to show off her bedroom, decorated with a dollhouse motif, and her green piggy bank, though she struggles to get out the words “piggy bank.”

Brown calls Janay “my angel” but knows her daughter is sometimes defiant and acts out when others cannot understand her or she cannot do something. She expected Cherokee to have experts on staff who could deal with her.

Janay, still working to master letters and colors, spent most of her previous school years in Seminole County, either at a public school for children with disabilities or at a private one. At neither campus, her mother said, did administrators ever call police to deal with her daughter.

She was stunned that was Cherokee’s solution.

“Why would you have my baby arrested? This is a school for kids like that,” Brown said.

Since the most recent arrest in mid-October, Janay has not been in school because Brown doesn’t want her at Cherokee.

“It’s been rough all these years,” Brown said. “I’m overwhelmed these last three months.”

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