Meralyn Kirkland couldn’t believe what she was being told.
The caller on Thursday had a message about her granddaughter, Kaia Rolle. The 6-year-old had been arrested at her Orlando charter school and was going to be taken to a juvenile facility.
“I say, ‘What do you mean she was arrested?'” Kirkland told WKMG on Friday.
There was “an incident,” Kirkland recalled the caller saying – Kaia “kicked somebody and she’s being charged.”
The Orlando Police Department said it is now investigating actions taken by Dennis Turner, the school resource officer who arrested Kaia and an 8-year-old student in separate events on the same day last week. Turner is accused of not following the department’s policy regarding juvenile arrests and has been suspended from his duties pending the outcome of an internal investigation, Orlando Police Chief Orlando Rolón said in a statement to The Washington Post. According to the policy, any arrests of minors under the age of 12 needs approval from a supervisor, which police say Turner did not obtain.
“As a grandparent of three children less than 11 years old this is very concerning to me,” Rolón said. “Our Department strives to deliver professional and courteous service. My staff and I are committed to exceeding those standards and expectations.”
Turner did not respond to a request for comment late Sunday.
Authorities declined to identify the two children who were arrested or disclose details about their cases, only noting that they were both students at a local charter school and charged with misdemeanors. Their arrests have renewed scrutiny on policing in schools, which advocates and studies say often unfairly targets students of color and those with disabilities, landing the young people in handcuffs for routine misbehavior.
Kirkland told WKMG that Kaia attends the Lucious & Emma Nixon Academy, a charter school within the Orange County Public Schools district. The school and district officials could not be reached for comment late Sunday.
Kaia’s arrest came after the little girl had a tantrum in class because her sleep apnea prevented her from getting enough rest the night before, Kirkland said. The episode resulted in a trip to the office, where a school staffer tried to grab Kaia’s wrists to calm her down – prompting her to kick back, she said.
“She has a medical condition that we’re working on getting resolved,” Kirkland said she told Turner. “So he says, ‘What medical condition?’ I said, ‘She has a sleep disorder, sleep apnea.’ He says, ‘Well, I have sleep apnea and I don’t behave like that.'”
Kaia was arrested and charged with battery, Kirkland said.
But the officer in charge of transporting Kaia confirmed that the proper approval hadn’t been obtained and she was returned to school before being processed at the juvenile facility, police said.
The 8-year-old, who was also arrested on Thursday, was processed and released to a family member not long after. It is not clear what led to the child’s arrest.
Turner spent 23 years as a police officer in Orlando before retiring in June 2018, according to the department. In 2016, Turner was issued a written reprimand for excessive force after he Tasered a man five times, jolting the suspect twice when he was already on the floor and no longer resisting, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Police said he is currently assigned to the Reserve Officer Program, which reportedly consists of retired officers.
The arrests of the two children sparked widespread outrage as some critics demanded that Turner be disciplined or fired, while others called for the Orlando Police Department to change its policy regarding minors.
School resource officers have become fixtures nationwide in the post-Columbine era, charged with protecting students from mass shootings, gangs and drugs, among other threats. During the 2017-2018 school year, almost 45 percent of all public schools had either a full-time or part-time school resource officer, according to a federal report released by the National Center for Education Statistics in July.
In recent years, however, criminal justice advocates have raised concerns that in-school officers often criminalize common student misbehavior that has traditionally been handled by teachers or school administrators.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that schools with a resource officer had fewer arrests for weapons and assault charges, but described the number of disorderly conduct arrests as “troubling.”
“For most youth, especially those from lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, education is an invaluable resource to insure a brighter future,” the study said. “To deny them an education because of a minor classroom disturbance or hallway disruption is unacceptable, unfair, and may permanently limit their prospects for a better life.”
Critics have also pointed to data showing that students from marginalized communities are disproportionately punished.
Black students represented 15 percent of the total student enrollment during the 2015-2016 school year, according to a recent report from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. But they made up 31 percent of the students referred to law enforcement or subjected to school-related arrests, the report said. Similarly, students with disabilities made up 12 percent of overall enrollment and 28 percent of those referred or arrested.
On Friday, Kirkland struggled to hold back tears as she described Kaia’s ordeal to WKMG. Sitting nearby on a couch, the 6-year-old soothed her grandmother.
“Don’t cry,” said the little girl dressed in a light blue polo shirt and a navy skirt. A matching blue bow adorned the top of her head.