- Kaia Rolle was 6 years old when she was arrested at school in 2019 after throwing a temper tantrum.
- The traumatizing incident shows how Black girls are criminalized in schools, experts told Insider.
- A bill passed in Florida aims to prohibit children under the age of 7 from being arrested.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Meralyn Kirkland was in the delivery room when her granddaughter, Kaia Rolle, was born unresponsive. As the doctors worked to get Kaia to take her first breath, it was Kirkland who prayed over her, promising that she would be there for the baby if she pulled through.
Since then, Kirkland has been Kaia’s guardian for most of her life living in Orlando, Florida. Her granddaughter, who she calls her second in command, loved to sing gospel songs and hugged everyone around her. But that was before she was arrested at school when she was 6 years old.
On September 19, 2019, Kaia begged a school-resource officer for a “second chance” as her tiny wrists were zip-tied and she was escorted out of Lucious and Emma Nixon Academy. Kaia was taken into custody after she reportedly threw a temper tantrum that Kirkland told Insider was triggered because of her sleep apnea, a condition Kirkland said the school was well aware of and makes her irritable during the day.
After the arrest Kaia developed extreme separation anxiety, her grandmother told Insider. She would wake up screaming with night terrors and wet her bed until she had to move into her grandmother’s room to finally fall asleep.
Kaia Rolle needed to stand on a step stool to take a mug shot, her grandmother says
“Don’t put handcuffs on.”
“Please let me go!”
“Give me a second chance!”
Kaia pleaded with a school-resource officer as she was taken out of her school, body camera footage shows. The first-grader loudly cried that she didn’t “want to go in the police car,” while being escorted to the street. She was placed in the back seat and her sobs could be heard until the car door was shut.
Kirkland said that the school-resource officer, Officer Dennis Turner, called to inform her about her granddaughter’s arrest, which happened after Kaia reportedly punched and kicked school staff during a tantrum. Kirkland said the call felt like being on the receiving end of a punch she didn’t expect.
“When he said arrested, all the wind went out of me. My brain could not process that she has been arrested and taken to a juvenile center,” Kirkland said. “When I went into the office, there was a charge sheet. Next to the charge sheet were two photographs of my 6-year-old granddaughter. One was a side view of her face. One was a front view of her face.”
Kirkland said at the juvenile center, Kaia was photographed, fingerprinted, and initially charged with misdemeanor battery. An employee at the center told her that her granddaughter had to stand on a step stool to take her mug shot, Kirkland said.
However, the state attorney dropped the charges against Kaia and expunged her record. Officer Turner was fired for failing to get approval from a supervisor before detaining a person younger than 12.
“How do you put expunged in the same sentence as a 6-year-old child?” Kirkland asked. “That’s what’s creating the school-to-prison pipeline for our children of color.”
“They have ruined her life over something that was 100% preventable,” Kirkland said. “She’s still a loving child, but she’s not as fun and loving the way she once was. Before, she saw some good in everything, and nothing used to bring her down, but now she has to bring herself out of despair.”
More than a year later, the incident has led Kaia, who is now 7, to fear uniformed officers, her grandmother said. She has been treated by several therapists and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and got failing marks on her latest report card, her grandmother said.
While Kirkland, who pays for Kaia’s medical bills and a new private school, had received $US6,997 ($AU9,506) from her GoFundMe campaign as of publication, and Kaia had been offered scholarships, she said she still faces a financial strain to mend her granddaughter’s trauma. Kaia’s mother, who lived in the Bahamas, returned to live with her daughter and Kirkland in Orlando to help aid her recovery.
“I really and truly feel that had we not been a Black family, we would’ve had more help,” Kirkland said. “We would have had a better opportunity to help Kaia through this a lot better and a lot faster.”
‘There’s just a very disturbing trend.’
Amid mass protests after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and conversations around policing in schools, activists in Florida have been demanding resource officers’ removal altogether. Their calls were amplified after two January incidents in Florida schools were captured on video and went viral.
Taylor Bracey, 16, was seen in a video being body-slammed by a school-resource officer at Liberty High School in Kissimmee, Florida. Local reporters and renowned national civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents the family, shared the video on Twitter at the time. Like Kaia, Bracey’s mother has publicly said that her daughter is traumatized and has suffered from side effects from the incident, including memory loss, headaches, and blurry vision.
At Eustis High School in Eustis, Florida, a 15-year-old girl was tased by a school-resource officer. In the incident report obtained by Insider, an officer said he was trying to break up an altercation between the teen and other students. The officer said the teen struck him multiple times while he was trying to restrain her, which led him to tase her, the report said. The teen had been charged for battery on a law-enforcement officer and resisting arrest with violence, according to the incident report.
-Ben Crump (@AttorneyCrump) January 27, 2021
“I think that there’s just a very disturbing trend,” Tosh Pyakuryal, 25, the state coordinator of Florida Power Student Network, told Insider. The Florida Power Student Network has been protesting and attending county school-board meetings, calling for the end of the school resource-officer program.
“It is important to recognize that this is part of a pattern. These aren’t isolated incidents. This is part of a pattern of violence that Black girls have been experiencing for years. And it’s something that many of us have been seeking to disrupt, and there are easy ways to disrupt it,” Monique Morris, a social justice scholar and filmmaker, told Insider.
Research shows Black girls are more likely to be perceived as an adult compared with their white counterparts and face harsher punishments in school.
“It has to do with the adultification in that Black girl’s experience,” Morris said. “This way in which Black girl behaviors are read as provocative or dangerous or problematic when their counterparts of other racial, ethnic groups are not perceived this way. And a lot of that has to do with the historical tropes and stereotypes associated with Black girlhood that present a particular risk for Black girls.”
According to Morris, one way to disrupt this pattern would be to include more practices in schools that “facilitate healing, that is not about adding more police officers to the school environment, but rather more clinicians, counselors, youth development workers that are about developing robust restorative approaches that can respond to young people who are in moments of conflict.”
Kirkland’s fight does not end with her granddaughter
In March, Kirkland testified before the Florida Senate Committee on Children, Families, and Elder Affairs in support of a bill to prevent children under the age of 7 from being arrested. The Orlando Sentinel reported that there’s no minimum age for arrests in Florida.
“I came to realize that situations like this predominantly happen to children of color,” Kirkland said. “And nobody was raising an alarm. Nobody was pushing any buttons.”
The bill, named the Kaia Rolle Act, was sponsored by state Sen. Randolph Bracy and passed the Florida Senate on March 2.
It states, “A child younger than 7 years of age may not be adjudicated delinquent, arrested, or charged with a violation of law or a delinquent act on the basis of acts occurring before he or she reaches 7 years of age unless the violation of law is a forcible felony.”
Kirkland wants the age limit to be raised to at least 12.
“I fight because I have three grandchildren younger than Kaia. The thought of this happening again to people I know or people I don’t know is just too much,” she said.