Florida, Please Stop Arresting Your Children

Florida, Please Stop Arresting Your Children

A story about miscommunication and twisted notions of justice came out of Miami last week and has been nagging at me.

A 7-year old boy was arrested and removed from his school in handcuffs under the provisions of the Florida Mental Health Act – known colloquially as the Baker act – and was taken to hospital for psychiatric evaluation. The arrest followed an altercation with a teacher where the boy punched her repeated in the back, was restrained but continued to struggle, brought her to the ground and began to pull her hair.

Eventually, the boy calmed down and was taken to principal’s office. He was then handcuffed and removed from the school despite the protestations of his mother, Mercy Alvarez, the principal and a counselor.

A statement released by the chief of schools’ police Ian Moffatt claimed that the incident, “was warranted to prevent his erratic and violent behavior from bringing further harm to others or himself.” The police said that the officer who removed the boy was following standard operating procedures in accordance with the Florida Mental Health Act.

Miami-Dade Public Schools have subsequently released a statement in their own defense saying, Due to a great concern for the student and to ensure his safety and that of those around him, he was restricted according to the Baker Act and transported to the hospital to be evaluated.”

The teacher intends to press charges against the boy. Alvarez is calling the incident police abuse and intends to press charges against the Miami-Dade School Police. The whole thing is a mess.

What permeates this story and stands out most prominently to me is the utter lack of reasonableness and proportionality on the part of both the school and the police.

Let’s start with the police, because I’m going to break my tradition and defend the individual officer in this case. You can watch her in video taken by Mercy Alvarez at both the school and hospital and see the officer behave calmly and gently towards the boy. At no point does she use any force and generally seems to be looking out for his well-being.

Where I think significant issue can be taken is with a police department that considers a 7-year-old to be a legitimate physical threat that warrants restriction with metal handcuffs. There is also the problem that officer felt compelled to follow the handcuffing procedure despite all clear indications that the boy had no intention of resisting. In the video you can see him walking with the police officer of his own volition.

It is indefensible to treat a child in this way. Alvarez said in an interview with a local news station that her son had always talked about wanting to become a police officer but now said he was afraid of the police.

Who could blame him? In the eyes of this child the police are now the people who show up to your school, handcuff you and take you to see a psychiatrist because you had a temper tantrum. This reflects just as poorly on the community policing at work – this is not a sober way to allocate police resources in one of America’s more crime prone cities.

Now to the school, the teacher and the invocation of the Florida Mental Health Act.

There is nothing wrong with pursuing disciplinary action towards a child who has acted out in a violent way. There is also no argument to be made that the boy in this case was not having a severe episode, where some harm may have come to the teacher and himself. On top of which is the consideration that this was not his first violent outburst at school, an altercation with a different teacher resulted in similar concerns.

The school and teacher are well within their rights to discipline the child, even to recommend that the child seek treatment for his clear issues with both anger and violence, refer him to a different institution more capable of dealing with his needs.

In a normal interaction this would be done in consultation with the parents and in the interest of the child and his well-being. His mother spoke to the press about issues with bullying. He was being reprimanded for playing with his food when the incident occurred, maybe there are issues of authority or punishment. Whatever the case, I can hardly imagine a scenario where a proportional response to a violent outburst from a seven-year old is to invoke a statute designed to protect the public and the mentally ill from undiagnosed disease.

The Florida Mental Health Act stipulates that someone can be subjected to involuntary examination if they present: symptoms of an undiagnosed mental illness; a clear danger to themselves or others. What about a child having a temper tantrum meets these criteria?

The reasonable conclusion is that a minor should not be subject to these laws because they clearly refer to adults capable of doing real damage. But to the bullied child playing with his food?

At some point we must conclude that the trauma of an arrest and forcible hospitalization caused more trauma to the child than that suffered by the teacher who was punched and had her hair pulled. This is what a miscarriage of justice looks like.

It would be less alarming if it were an isolated incident, but in a report published by ABC News last July, Florida’s deputy state attorney revealed that 100 children aged five and six has been arrested in Florida in the preceding twelve months.

Florida, please, I beg of you, stop calling the cops on your children. It’s not going to make things better.