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Criminalizing Childhood

Beware of punishing wrongfully.

— The Teaching for Merikare, c. 2135 B.C.

“We have to be darn careful not to put any children into the juvenile-justice system who don’t need intensive rehabilitation.”  Those were the words spoken by Bill Sublette, chairman of the Florida Orange County School Board and a former state legislator.  He got it right.  Not every Florida school district has.

In early February 2010 6-year old Haley Shalansky, a student at Parkway Elementary in Port St. Lucie, Florida had a temper tantrum in class when asked to perform a task.  She was sent to the principal’s office where she proceeded to throw some objects from the principal’s desk on the floor.  The police were called and she was handcuffed and taken away from school in a police car.  Her arms were so tiny that both arms were put in one handcuff.  The next day she returned to school, misbehaved again and was sent by the school to a mental health facility.  Haley’s parents were outraged not realizing that in Florida the strong arm of the law is a substitute for the paddle-wielding arm. (In 2008 Florida school officials administered corporal punishment to 7,185 students.)

Sixteen-year old Kiera Wilomot is an exemplary student at Bartow High School in Polk County, Florida.  April 22, 2013, at the urging of one of her fellow students while outside the school and before school had begun, she combined toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in an 8-ounce plastic bottle to see what would happen. The combination caused a small explosion that blew the cap off the bottle but caused no other damage or injury.  An assistant principal witnessed the experiment, however, and promptly called someone known as the “school resource officer” who took Kiera into custody and turned her over to the Florida Assistant State Attorney.  The school expelled Kiera for violating the school’s code of conduct and Tammy Glotfelty, a Florida Assistant State Attorney not wanting to be left out of the fun, charged Kiera as an adult with two felonies.  One felony was for “possessing or discharging weapons or firearms on school property” and the second was “making, possessing, throwing, projecting, placing, or discharging any destructive device.”  Tammy can explain how an 8 ounce plastic bottle filled with a liquid is a firearm since that is why Tammy went to law school.  On May 15, 2013, Polk County State Attorney Jerry Hill said that the charges against Kiera had been dismissed and that she would enter a diversion program, a face saving device for prosecutors and a complete waste of time for Kiera.   This summer Kiera and her twin sister, Kayla, will be going to the U.S. Space Academy on full scholarships provided by Homer Hickam, a former International Space Station astronaut-trainer who thinks scientific curiosity should be rewarded rather than punished. For outrageous conduct by authorities, none of the foregoing compares with the plight of Kaitlyn Hunt of Vero Beach, Florida.

Kaitlyn is an 18-year old high school student.  In November 2012 she began dating a 14-year old classmate.  She and her classmate engaged in the sort of conduct that frequently accompanies the old and young when dating.  What neither of the girls knew was that because of the age difference, each time they had physical contact Kaitlyn was committing a felony for which she could be prosecuted. The 14-year old’s parents, James and Laurie Smith, did not approve of the relationship and seeking revenge for what they perceived to be the seduction of their daughter, filed a complaint with the state attorney.  The prosecuting attorney (a direct descendant of the 18th Century Puritans) charged Kaitlyn with two counts of “lewd and lascivious battery on a child 12-16 years of age.”  If convicted Kaitlyn could face 15 years in prison and be required to register as a sex offender, a label that would haunt her for the rest of her life.  Recognizing that this is a draconian result, the prosecutor offered her a plea bargain that is the kind of a bargain that makes a mockery of the word. If Kaitlyn pleads guilty to felony child abuse she may avoid being labeled a sex offender.  The punishment the prosecutor would recommend to the judge would require Kaitlyn to undergo two years of house arrest plus another year of probation.

Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter was convicted of adultery by the puritans in her hometown. As punishment “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.”  She was required to wear the gown whenever she was in public.  Until Florida came along most would have thought it hard to top the punishment a judgmental group of puritans imposed on one of their own.  The prosecuting attorney has put the Puritans to shame and brought shame to his office and the Florida judicial system.  Too bad he was not born 300 years ago.  He’d have fit in beautifully.

Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

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