Orange County leads Fla. in child arrests; new law may change things

By Saul Saenz, Reporter
Last Updated: Wednesday, September 09, 2015, 5:10 PM EDT

Orange and Osceola counties lead the state in a statistic parents may not be too happy to hear about.

Orange County leads the state in arresting children between the ages of five and 10 for misbehaving.

But legal experts say a solution may be coming soon.

A Department of Juvenile Justice report shows more than 2,000 children between the ages of five and 10 years old were arrested for behavioral problems last year.

Legal experts say scenes of children being handcuffed inside classrooms play out too often in Central Florida. They call it a school-to-prison pipeline.

Florida A&M University Dean LeRoy Pernell says according to the DJJ study, the bulk of the arrests of five and 10-year-olds were not for serious crimes like murder or arson.

"Maybe fist fights, dress code violations, talking back. Conduct that is basically viewed as insubordinate," said Pernell.

A presentation by the League of Women Voters and legal experts showed the issue with arresting children is they feel shamed by being treated as criminals. The arrest could have long-term effects.

"By giving them the label of being criminals then often the child fits the label and pursues that path, and the rest is destructive in that way," said Ninth Judicial District Public Defender Robert Wesley.

Experts say the problem is Central Florida schools offer more police officers in hallways than behavioral tutors or counselors in schools -- officers whose only tool is to make an arrest.

However, the group says there is light at the end of the tunnel. Governor Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 378 last May. The law calls on officers and school officials to issue every student who committed a non-felonious offense a civil citation, a program which tutors the child.

"Three-Hundred Eighty-Six dollars to give a child a civil citation versus $5,000 to arrest a child and send them to a life where they will struggle for the rest of their life," said League of Women Voters past president Diedre Mcnab.

SB 378 also requires a law enforcement officer to explain in writing why they chose to arrest a child rather than issue a civil citation.

The new law takes effect Oct. 1.