A Clearwater mother is demanding answers and more training for school resource officers after she says her seven-year-old special needs child was handcuffed, arrested and sent to a mental health facility.
Tyeisha Harmon’s son attends Belcher Elementary. Harmon said her son was ultimately handcuffed and arrested over a classroom meltdown. She says her son has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder and ADHD.
She showed ABC Action News paperwork filed with the district. His Individual Education Program notes he needs a “structured environment with clear routines and expectations.” Harmon says the school moved her son into a new classroom. She says he’s been in transition into the new classroom and teachers let him spend some time in the old classroom. But Wednesday was his first full day in the new classroom. The change, she claims, caused him to have anxiety and act out.
The school called Harmon but by the time she arrived she says learned her son was Baker Acted. The Baker Act is a Florida law that allows designated professionals including law enforcement, judges, doctors or mental health professional to initiate an involuntary mental health examination on a person or child who exemplifies a mental illness by displaying behavior that poses a threat to themselves or others. When it comes to children, most Baker Acts are initiated at school.
Harmon says her son spent four hours in a mental health facility getting checked out by a professional. At home, she says her son told her he was arrested and showed her marks on his wrists.
“He’s like 'mommy, I was handcuffed and look what they did to my wrists" she recounted.
Harmon insists it never should have gotten to this point and believes a child as young as hers shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place. She believes his behavior did not warrant a Baker Act.
“To handcuff him and put him in the backseat — not only did you handcuff him but you did it so tightly that it left marks on his hands and he’s seven. What’s he going to do? He’s seven and in the backseat," said Harmon.
Harmon wants SROs to have more training in dealing with special needs kids.
“It’s very serious because nobody’s kids should have to go through that," she said.
According to the state, in the past five years, 5% of all juvenile arrests in the Sunshine State involved elementary-aged children. Just recently body camera footage was released showing a school resource officer arresting and zip tying a six-year-old girl last fall in Orlando. The video caused public outcry. Now, a Florida lawmaker is taking action. Senator Randolph Bracy filed the legislation requiring a minimum age of arrest. The proposed bill would prohibit arresting children under the age of 10 and prevent them from being charged with a crime for childhood misbehavior. Bracy says 23 other states already have laws establishing a minimum age for arrest. Harmon agrees with implementing a mandatory age for arrest.
We reached out to Pinellas County Schools for a response to Harmon's accusations. The district forwarded us the message Belcher Elementary School Principal Kristy Moody sent to parents. It reads:
To keep you informed of important matters, on Wednesday afternoon a student had to be restrained for their own safety and the safety of others. The student was engaging in dangerous activity that could have hurt the student or others. Please know that restraint of students is only used as a last resort when other interventions have not resolved the issue. The safety, health and well-being of our students and staff is our highest priority.
Harmon says her son wasn't just restrained, he was sent away in handcuffs. ABC Action News asked her about this supposed "dangerous activity" the principal says her son was behind. Harmon says her son was running away from them.
"Which, again, is not a reason to Baker Act him. He wasn't even around other students," she said.