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Schools try to avoid arresting young children. But for some, handcuffs work when alternatives don't.
By CURTIS KRUEGER
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 18, 2000
An 8-year-old child, face-down on the floor. Twisting, struggling, yelling.
Teacher Donia Robinson had put the boy there, with help from her teaching assistant. The boy had refused to line up with his class, then started kicking and yelling. So the two adults brought him down, preparing to take him to a time-out room.
But he jerked around and got one hand on Robinson's neck. Then the other. He was choking her.
Feeling scared, she bit his finger. "Flat-out panic," she said later.
An officer came to arrest the boy on a charge of battery on a school official, a felony. And even as he was led away to a police cruiser, crying, she could tell the boy already was sorry.
"When they come back the next day, they give you a hug. They don't mean it, it's not personal. It's just that they don't know any better."
For 13 years, Robinson has taught at Tampa's Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center, a school that is on no one's list of the easiest places to work. Every grade school student there has been classified as "emotionally handicapped" or "severely emotionally disturbed." Some of the kids are foster children who live full-time on the school grounds.
Robinson, 55, believes in helping these kids. She takes no joy in seeing such a young child led to a police cruiser, as in that February incident.
Nor does she back away from it.
In her view, young children, even those with emotional difficulties, sometimes must be arrested. Especially after they have been warned and disciplined, but still hurt someone.
Says Robinson: "You cannot change behavior by allowing it to continue."
Teachers know that class troublemakers often are struggling with mental or emotional conditions and really need long-term help -- counseling, medication, even better parenting at home. But faced with a child in mid explosion, many feel they have no choice but to call police.
Some teachers had their outlooks reshaped by the Columbine High School shootings. They say they can't take any chances with grade school children who make threats, hurt teachers or students, or show up for school with knives or worse.
And some, like Robinson, say they have to allow arrests on rare occasions, so students will know that violence is not acceptable, in the classroom or outside it.
If young children commit violent offenses at school and no one ever gets arrested, then "it's not going to prevent them as they're getting older, bigger and stronger from continuing those same kinds of acts," said Karen Voytecki, a reading teacher at Richard L. Sanders School in Pinellas Park, who recently was named statewide exceptional teacher of the year.
Although she has never pressed charges against an elementary-age child, her colleagues have. She said that sadly, it's sometimes appropriate. "I think that they learn that they're not allowed to hurt teachers."
But parents, child advocates and some school officials are deeply troubled by handcuffing and arresting these children, especially because many have conditions that prevent them from fully controlling their own behavior.
It amounts to punishing them for their disabilities, they say, and often does nothing to address the underlying reasons for their outbursts. These arrests even bother some of the officers called to make them.
"We all went through the academy," said Sgt. Ed Short of the Pinellas Sheriff's Youth Services Division. "For a lot of us, we went through four years of school majoring in criminology. And where did this come in where we're prepared to deal with 10-, 8- and 9-year-old children?"
Calling an officer to deal with a young mentally ill child "is like calling a plumber to fix the light bulb. You're getting an expert, but not for what you need," Short said.
Out behind his light blue house in the rural community of Dunnellon, Mikey Rao can dart through clumps of backyard grass with his four pet dogs.
Sometimes, when his folks are keeping hens, he tiptoes back inside, using his T-shirt like an apron to gingerly carry fresh-laid eggs.
But scenes with Mikey are not always so idyllic. Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and with oppositional defiant disorder, a condition characterized by hostility to people in authority, Mikey can be a handful for his parents, Michael and Lydia, and sometimes for his teachers.
Even so, the Raos were stunned at what happened in March of last year, when Mikey was just 8.
Skinny, brown-haired Mikey, 4 feet tall and 76 pounds, got arrested, handcuffed and taken to Citrus County's adult jail in Lecanto.
Because Citrus County has no special assessment center for juveniles as some counties do, children are taken to an interview room in the adult jail until their parents or juvenile justice workers arrive to take them elsewhere. Adult inmates are not allowed in the room, but the youths can often see them from where they sit.
Mikey was accused of scratching one teacher's aide with his fingernails and kicking another six or seven times, as the aides tried to get him off a jungle gym and into the principal's office.
More than a year has passed since Mikey's arrest, but he has not forgotten the day "they took me to that real jail."
Not long ago, he dreamed he was back there, surrounded by adult prisoners. "I was in a jail cell, being hurt by the other ones who got arrested for killing people," he said, describing the dream.
The Raos don't condone scratching or kicking. But they think Mikey's second-grade teachers actually provoked his outburst, by disciplining him in a way that was likely to cause a flare-up in someone with his particular disorders.
"Unfortunately, to these types of children, they're too quick to label them, they're too quick to have them arrested," said Lydia Rao, Mikey's mother. "I'm just not happy."
Lane Vick, principal at Citrus Springs Elementary, said Mikey's arrest was handled correctly although "I thought it was sad that it happened." She said Mikey is doing very well in school now.
William Bankhead, secretary of Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice, said he's surprised at how often his agency gets involved in such cases. "Kids shouldn't beat up teachers, but when you've got a 7-year-old (who is) in a tantrum, I'm not sure that's a juvenile justice offense. That's some other kind of problem."
Adding to the difficulty in cases like this, some disruptive children have conditions that have not been fully diagnosed. Such children often have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which can be treated with the drug Ritalin, or a diagnosable condition called "conduct disorder," characterized by aggressive behavior. But it's not easy or quick to find the right diagnosis, medicine and dosage, and in the meantime a child's disruptive behavior can continue or worsen.
"Medication is notorious for taking time before a therapeutic level is reached," said Al Duchnowski, professor of child and family studies and special education at the University of South Florida.
A stack of reports provided by the Campus Police, an agency of the Pinellas County school system, offers one glimpse into how the system works for some children with mental and emotional difficulties.
Of 71 police reports for children under 12, nearly half -- 35 -- were from schools for children classified as severely emotionally disturbed, or SED. And several of the other accused children were in classes for the emotionally handicapped, or EH. The reports were for children accused of crimes between Jan. 1, 1999, and mid April of this year.
Campus Police officers are stationed at SED schools, unlike other elementary schools, which accounts for some of the over-representation. But overall, SED students make up less than 1 percent of the county's grade-schoolers.
The highest number of reports came from the Richard L. Sanders SED school in Pinellas Park, where 20 children under 12 were either arrested or accused in police complaints of committing crimes during the 16-month period.
"You would almost expect that," said Bill Corbett, principal. "We have a very difficult group of kids. I just think it's an indication of the group of kids we work with."
Corbett said teachers only call for a student's arrest as a last resort and that beforehand, "Most of the kids have just had a slew, and I mean an unbelievable amount of interventions tried over and over again."
Schoolchildren who misbehave often are warned repeatedly and given lighter forms of discipline, such as time outs. At SED schools, all students work with "behavior specialists," who help children develop plans for improving their conduct.
Many educators said they generally don't press charges when they're the ones who initiate the physical contact. Tim Haley, principal of the Hamilton Disston SED school in Gulfport, said, for example, that if he were restraining a child who then flailed his arms and hit him in the nose, he would conclude that this would not be "a real great time to be pressing charges."
But Linda Long says it was that sort of situation that led to the arrest of her daughter Samantha last year at St. Petersburg's Azalea Elementary School.
At the time, Samantha was 8, 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.
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.
"It was totally ridiculous," Long said. "These children are emotionally handicapped. That means they show the wrong emotions at the wrong time."
Long works for the Pinellas school system, in the transportation department. She said she was let go from the district after 11 years after being charged in 1991 with possession of marijuana. She vigorously denied the charges, which were later dismissed, and was rehired by the school system in 1999.
Long said she was shocked when she learned her daughter could be arrested for "something stupid like sitting on the floor kicking," particularly in a class for kids who have been identified as having emotional problems.
"They further damage these kids emotionally, in my opinion," she said.
Although a police report said it was Samantha's kicks that led to her being arrested for battery, her former teacher Michelle Fleeman said the reason police were called in the first place was because Samantha had pushed the teacher's aide, in spite of having been previously warned not to.
But what are the alternatives?
That's what Robinson considered when the 8-year-old was arrested for choking her, and another time more than a year ago when another young child bit her in the chest and bruised her arm from shoulder to elbow.
When a child is screaming, hitting or throwing things in class, she often asks: What would happen if the boy or girl had an outburst like this off-campus, at a convenience store or some place that wasn't staffed by professionals who had chosen to work with emotionally troubled kids?
She thinks she knows the answer. "You throw one of these fits, you are going to be hurt. The reality of the situation is, you cannot function this way in society."
That's part of the reason she agreed to an arrest in those two cases. She said the boy who bit her did not have much of a conscience. He never really understood that it's wrong to hurt other people. But he never got arrested again. "His thing was, "I don't want to go to jail.' And I think unfortunately, you have some kids out there who don't have the cognitive ability to ever move too far off of that."
Michaelle Blamey, 33, a teacher at Sulphur Springs Elementary School in Tampa, had the opposite experience.
She was four months pregnant when a student scratched her hand and punched her arm. Then, she says, the boy claimed he hadn't done anything. It was the lying that bothered her most; she pressed charges, hoping it "might help him become aware."
But his bad behavior continued after returning to school. Now, in a similar circumstance, she thinks she would decide against seeking an arrest. "I'm in the business of doing what works to receive the results I need."
Sometimes out-of-control kids get arrested because adults -- police, teachers, even parents -- think the juvenile justice system will find them mental health treatment.
Often it does. But the system is haphazard. Juvenile justice and mental health services can be poorly coordinated.
"They are not likely to get the help they need or even the diagnosis they need when they are put in the juvenile justice system," said Henry George White, who until recently was executive director of Florida's Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, a state-mandated monitoring group. "Yet the juvenile justice system has become the dumping ground for kids that have serious problems, but not serious enough to be hospitalized."
Lamont Guinyard of St. Petersburg is a case in point. After Lamont was arrested on a battery charge earlier this year, when he was 10, a judge ruled he was not mentally competent, meaning he could not understand the charges against him and therefore could not be prosecuted until he did.
But in the meantime, he got arrested for battery again at his school. This time, he was housed overnight in the Juvenile Detention Center -- even though he was living at the time at a mental health facility that would have accepted him back, and even though he had recently been found incompetent in the earlier case.
"It's still sweeping the problem under the rug to call the police" on mentally ill children, White said. Why? Because after the courts sentence these children, possibly handing them over to the Department of Juvenile Justice, the children's mental condition still needs to be dealt with.
A grand jury made a similar point in the case of a Marion County boy named Michael Wiltsie.
Michael, a 12-year-old who weighed 65 pounds, died in February after a 300-pound counselor restrained him at a wilderness camp near Ocala where he had been placed by the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
The camp, operated by Eckerd Youth Alternatives, is designed to teach personal responsibility, communication and life skills to troubled youths. Youths build their own shelters and plan wilderness trips.
A grand jury later said Michael, who had a juvenile record that included charges of criminal mischief, burglary and other charges, never should have been at Camp E-Kel-Etu on the border of Ocala National Forest.
Michael had a history of aggressive behavior, "suicidal ideation" and diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. Yet he was taken off his medication, because the camp does not accept boys who need it, according to the jurors' official report.
"Michael needed to have been placed in a residential mental health program," the jurors wrote. Their report said that "the system which existed for Michael's benefit failed him, and us."
"We are very concerned," the jurors wrote, "that there are other Michaels in the juvenile justice system."
Times staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (727) 893-8232.