Rash of arrests at Orange County elementary school raises questions

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ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - An Orange County school that serves children with severe emotional problems is a bit too quick to have its students arrested, says a mother of one of the students.

Since August, 11 children have been arrested by police at Cherokee Elementary School in Orlando, including 12-year-old Janay Jelks, who has been arrested three times.

Janay was hauled away in handcuffs after she poked a police officer who visited her classroom. She was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer.

Janay’s mother, LeTasha Brown, told WFTV’s Lori Brown that her daughter has the mental capacity of a 6-year-old. Even though Janay is 12, the felony arrest will be on her record for life. Brown questions whether arresting kids with emotional problems is the best way to deal with them.

“I think they need to have more people who understand these children,’’ LeTasha Brown said.

Other juvenile justice experts agree.

"Why aren’t there more innovative and better tools being used right at the school site?" asked Bob Wesley, public defender in the Ninth Judicial Circuit.

Statistics show that students like Janay and her classmates who are arrested are likely to have a very troubled life afterward.

The younger a child is arrested, the more likely he or she is to be incarcerated as an adult.

According to a study in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior, children arrested before age 15 were six times more likely than others to be arrested again after age 21.

"It becomes another impediment to the child being able to relate socially or see himself as being able to achieve," Wesley said.

After Janay’s arrest for poking a police officer, she was arrested again for throwing blocks at her teacher and punching her principal.

The number of arrests at Cherokee caught the attention of juvenile justice staff who then met with school employees to discuss alternatives. District officials said all the arrests were appropriate.

But Brown said she doesn’t think handcuffs are the answer for a girl still playing with baby dolls. She hopes teachers will help her daughter reach her full potential.

The district is now collaborating with the county to create a “central receiving center’’ where children could be assessed rather than arrested.