Discipline of minority schoolchildren in FL and elsewhere can be discriminatory and disturbing

Feds are looking to improve disciplinary practices and ensure kids are treated equally

By: - July 30, 2021 7:00 am

Students in a classroom. Credit: Getty Images.

In the fall of 2019, a little Black girl named Kaia Rolle was arrested at her Orlando school, allegedly for throwing a tantrum.  A police officer zip-tied her hands behind her back and placed her in the back of a police car for kicking a school staffer.

Rolle was just 6 at the time, and the officer’s body camera footage of her arrest caught the attention of national news outlets. That spurred a new law in Florida  —  “the Kaia Rolle Act” — that forbids the arrest of anyone under 7, under most circumstances.

That law and another this year in Florida — on restraining and secluding children — shows some progress in how schools are dealing with students who have been disciplined.

But Florida and other states, particularly Southern states, are still behind in ensuring that minority students are not disproportionately disciplined. And the federal government is moving to improve disciplinary practices that ensure students are treated equally.

In Florida, Black students represent only 22 percent of the public school enrollment, but Black students  comprise 37 percent of in-school suspensions.  That data comes from 149,987 in-school suspensions from 2019-20, according to the Florida Department of Education.

The data also show that white and Hispanic students are not disproportionately disciplined in the area of in-school suspensions.

Suspensions aren’t the only disciplinary incidents at school. There are out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. And there are arrests at schools.

“It’s going to take years …”

State Sen. Randolph Bracy held a news conference this week about the troubling case of Kaia Rolle, who was arrested at her school. He was appalled.

“Kaia Rolle was arrested as a 6-year-old,” Bracy said at the conference. “At the time, my daughter was 6-years-old and I was appalled to hear that Kaia was arrested…put in handcuffs, taken to a jail, and booked.”

Bracy, a Democrat who represents part of Orange County, presented Rolle with a framed description of the Kaia Rolle Act during the news conference. But the joy in the now-8-year-old’s eyes didn’t say everything.

Rolle’s grandmother, Meralyn Kirkland, said that Rolle has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the experience and is receiving therapy.

When she was 6, Kaia Rolle was arrested at her Orlando school. She’s now 8. The incident spurred a new law to forbid children under 7 from being arrested. Credit: State Sen. Randolph Bracy Facebook.page.

“One of Kaia’s greatest fears was that every time she saw a police officer, they were either coming to arrest her or they were going to arrest one of her friends or her family members,” Kirkland said.

“It’s going to take years for her to get to a point where she doesn’t feel that a uniformed officer is there to arrest her,” Kirkland added.

Kirkland also noted that Rolle, now 8, has already aged out of the protection of the legislation named after her experience.

The original legislation Bracy filed in 2020 attempted to reduce arrests of 12-year-olds and younger, but that bill did not get a committee hearing.

In 2021, the Kaia Rolle Act became part of a broader law focused on police reforms.  The law sets a minimum age of arrest and forbids the arrest of anyone under the age of seven in most circumstances.

That bill passed both chambers and was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis last month.

At the press conference this week, Bracy said he would reintroduce legislation to establish the minimum age of arrest to either 10 or 12 years old.

The feds get involved

The U.S. Department of Education is looking for information about safety and school discipline in order to ensure that students are treated equally and school discipline is not discriminatory.

The USDE’s Office of Civil Rights in June sent out a request for public comments and insights on what measures should be considered to help schools in this regard.

More than 3,500 responses came in, including comments from the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund.

The SPLC is an advocacy group for racial justice, focusing primarily on issues in the South, and the SPLC’s 20 pages of comments make several mentions of discrimination in Florida’s disciplinary measures.

The organization highlighted that the arrest of young students, in-school suspensions or expulsions, and the use of seclusion practices or restraints tend to be used at a higher rate on students of color and students with disabilities.

The Southern Poverty Law Center document said: “Students of color attending schools with high suspension rates are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated later in life, and less likely to attend a four-year college.”

The group also noted that, “In Florida, students with disabilities are often illegally subjected to being involuntarily detained and examined under the Florida Mental Health Act, known as the Baker Act for behaviors that symptomatic of their disabilities.”

“The Baker Act, which has become a normalized exclusionary disciplinary tool used against over 37,000 Florida children a year, is also used disproportionately on Black children; 25% of all children who were Baker Acted were Black in 2016-17 (the last year for which race data was reported statewide), despite Black children comprising only 15% of the under-18 population.”

In Pinellas, the SPLC document said, “A study of Pinellas County discipline found that more than half of suspended Black students were suspended for subjective offenses, like not cooperating, class disruption, insubordination or disrespect.”

School to prison pipeline

SPLC’s comments to the U.S Department of Education note that discrimination in disciplinary actions contribute to what’s called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The American Civil Liberties Union describes the school-to-prison pipeline as “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”

Boy sitting on the floor, sad
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services photo

The ACLU notes  on its website that “suspended and expelled children are often left unsupervised and without constructive activities; they also can easily fall behind in their coursework, leading to a greater likelihood of disengagement and drop-outs. All of these factors increase the likelihood of court involvement.”

As to small children: “Police officers arrested elementary-aged kids 345 times, including an arrest of a 5-year-old and five arrests of 6-year olds,” in Florida during the 2018-19 school year, a report by the ACLU called the “The Cost of School Policing” says.

The 2020 report claims that earlier legislation passed by Florida lawmakers have contributed to more arrests of students on school campuses.

In 2018, Florida lawmakers created a new law that put more law enforcement officers on school campuses following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County.

“The law requiring police or security personnel in every school resulted in the near doubling of the number of officers stationed at schools in Florida and brought an 8% increase in the student arrest rate,” the ACLU report says, noting that Florida students are more likely to encounter a law enforcement officer than they are to encounter a school social worker or school psychiatrist.

During the 2021 legislative session, Florida lawmakers passed a law prohibiting the practice of seclusion and isolation, which can be a traumatizing experience for kids, particularly those with disabilities.

The law was sponsored by State Rep. Bobby DuBose, a Democrat who represents part of Broward County,

Seclusion, as defined by the law as “involuntary confinement of a student in a room or area alone and preventing the student from leaving the room or area,” is prohibited in Florida as of July 1, 2021.

The new law also limits when school personnel can use restraints on a child — only in situations where they are a harm to themselves or those around them. Restraints may be used only when there is imminent risk of serious injury.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.