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2 hands, 1 cuff and a trip to the 'jailhouse'

Six-year-old Trayvon McRae threw a "tantrum" in music class. He ended up shackled in the back of a police cruiser.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 18, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- The police officer handcuffed the suspect she was arresting on a charge of battery on a law enforcement officer, but not in the usual way.

Officer Kathleen Shelley asked 6-year-old Trayvon McRae to put his hands together. Because his arms were so skinny, she snapped a single cuff around both slender wrists. The other cuff she clipped through a belt loop of the dark blue pants that are part of his school uniform.

"She took me to the jailhouse," Trayvon said later.

What happened to Trayvon shows that even when schools try to find alternatives to arresting young children, boys and girls still sometimes wind up in a set of handcuffs.

On Oct. 26 -- two weeks after he turned 6 -- Trayvon and other kindergarteners were in music class at Bear Creek Elementary School.

Trayvon had a "temper tantrum," police say. He was told to sit at a desk in a corner because he was disrupting the class, kicking and hitting classmates. Police said he kicked his teacher, too.

School staff asked the school's operations manager to pick up Trayvon and carry him into the office. Trayvon also kicked that man, police said.

School officials planned to suspend Trayvon for three days -- but not have him arrested. They called family members, but no one could come to pick him up. So Shelley, a St. Petersburg police officer with a drug awareness program, agreed to take him to his aunt's house.

Shelley warned Trayvon to be good. But on the drive, he became disruptive and seemed to be trying to get out of the car. Shelley pulled over.

Then Trayvon escaped from the back of the police cruiser, which is designed to keep suspects locked inside. How did a kindergartener accomplish what canny, grown-up criminals cannot? Somehow the door locks had not been disabled in Shelley's cruiser, said St. Petersburg police spokesman Rick Stelljes.

The boy bolted out and ran up busy 49th Street. Shelley chased him down, grabbed his shirt, fell and twisted her ankle. She hobbled back, carrying Trayvon to the cruiser.

Trayvon kicked her, she said.

She handcuffed him, arrested him and took him to the Juvenile Assessment Center, not the "jailhouse," as Trayvon called it. He was released later that day.

Shelley did not wish to be interviewed. But a police spokesman, Dan Bates, said Shelley felt, "The child is obviously in need of some kind of counseling, and the easiest and quickest way to get him into the system is to take him into custody."

Trayvon's mother, Belinda Kelly, a certified nurse's aide, said Trayvon is not on medication and has no mental health problems she is aware of. But a couple of weeks after his arrest, she said no one had contacted her about getting counseling for Trayvon.

"I just think the police officer could handle it a little differently," Kelly said. "He shouldn't have to experience that."

When his mother asked why he had been arrested, she said Trayvon told her " 'Cause I was bad in music." But he actually was arrested on a charge of battery on a police officer, not disrupting his class.

Police acknowledge that arresting a kindergartener for battery on an officer is unusual.

"I know the whole thing's a little bit awkward," said Stelljes, the spokesman. "The last thing that we would normally want to do is take a 6-year-old into custody and have to charge somebody with something like this. She certainly tried every alternative."

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