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House Passes 'Kaia Rolle Act' To Curb Arrest Of Children

Meralyn Kirkland stands at the podium with her six-year-old granddaughter, Kaia Rolle to recount her granddaughterts arrest in Orlando after throwing a tantrum at school.
Blaise Gainey

The Florida House has approved a measure that includes a plan to curb the arrest of children under 10. It came after last-minute negotiations and personal pleas from six-year-old Kaia Rolle and her grandmother.

To have a police officer on the line telling you that your six-year-old baby, my granddaughter Kaia was arrested, I just couldn't process it. - Maryland Kirkland

Meralyn Kirkland is Kaia Rolle’s grandmother. She says she was confused after learning Kaia was arrested for throwing a tantrum at school. She says she told the arresting officer, Dennis Turner, that her granddaughter had sleep apnea and often threw tantrums after nights of little sleep. But the explanation got her nowhere.

“I just simply couldn’t process it, the only thing I could do was grab my bag get up and leave," Kirkland said. "Especially after speaking to the officer [and] explaining that she had a underlying medical condition. And [then] being told by an adult father and possibly grandfather that he doesn’t act a way with his similar medical condition...I just realized it was a conversation that wasn’t going to happen.”

That’s not where it ended. Once Kirkland arrived to the center she says they didn’t let them see her granddaughter until after Kaia was fingerprinted and had a mugshot taken.

"She’s been in therapy from that day until this. She has therapy twice a week. We couldn’t get her into another public school because she had meltdowns seeing the other officers on campus," Kirkland said. "We had to go ahead and come up with resources to put her in a private school. So you know, it's been a long road."

Officer Turner was fired after an investigation found he violated a department policy that requires approval from the watch commander to arrest anyone younger than 12. Now, House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee is sponsoring the "Kaia Rolle Act" to make sure all schools and law enforcement departments have a policy in place for handling children.

“It requires law enforcement in schools to have a procedure in place for police and sheriff’s departments when they are interacting with kids 10 years of age or younger regarding criminal matters. This is huge this is a big step in a long line of steps that we must take to get to the final destination," the Cutler Bay Democrat said. 

The Act was attached to a larger school safety bill that received a unanimous vote by the full House. During the debate, Rep. Wengay Newton (D-St. Petersburg) said this incident isn’t a one off.

"In my district...we had 10,877 of [the] 55,447 juveniles arrested in this state. And of that ,53 of them were eight-year-olds," Newton said. "This is standard operating procedure--putting handcuffs on our babies in these schools."

Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) called the amendment a great first step but wants more done.

"I do urge us to consider in the future on the larger package of criminal justice reform to think about the current law in Florida, because 23 other states have statutory limitations on the arrest of minors with exemptions with acts of violence and so forth," Eskamani said. "But 23 states have policies similar to the bill myself and Senator Bracy filed early on, and I encourage us to consider that in the future as well."

Eskamani and Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando) filed bills to set limits on juvenile arrests that were never heard. They would have prevented children under the age of twelve from being arrested unless they are an imminent threat of serious harm to another individual.

Currently nothing in Florida law prevents the arrest of young children, especially those under 10.

Blaise Gainey is a State Government Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.