ORLANDO, Fla. — The family of Kaia Rolle, who was 6 when she was arrested at an Orlando charter school by reserve officers in 2019, amended their lawsuit against the city and OPD as they renew a push to reduce Florida’s minimum age of arrest.
The lawsuit, first filed last year but amended Monday morning, accuses officers Dennis Turner and Sergio Ramos of excessive force and false arrest in taking Kaia, who was perp-walked wearing zip ties because her wrists were too small to fit standard handcuffs, to the Juvenile Assessment Center over a tantrum in which she allegedly hit school employees. Along with claiming the arrest and subsequent battery charge were unconstitutional, the complaint accuses the officers’ supervisors of failing to intervene in the arrest.
It further blames the City of Orlando for having never “instituted policies or procedures that educated officers on de-escalation techniques involving little children,” according to the 25-page complaint available in court records.
“We bring this lawsuit today on behalf of [Kaia’s] constitutional rights and her need for safety and her need to be recognized and her dignity to be recognized here in the state of Florida and across the country,” said Bobby DiCello, representing Kaia and her family, who stood with him at a press conference in front of the Orange County Courthouse.
Kaia’s arrest and processing at the JAC, where her family said her mugshot was taken as she stood on a step stool, made national headlines as many were shocked that a child so young could be arrested at school. Meralyn Kirkland, her grandmother, said the school was aware of a medical condition that caused the child’s tantrums but still allowed her to be arrested.
The misdemeanor battery charge filed against Kaia was dropped the next day by prosecutors. Meanwhile, Turner, whose body camera video showed him bragging about arresting children as young as 7 in the past, was fired days later after OPD officials said he violated a policy banning arrests of children under 12 without a supervisor’s approval.
The agency has since updated its policy to require the approval of the chief deputy. But years later, Kaia, now 10, still panics when she sees a police officer in public, a “lifelong mission” of recovery with which Kirkland said her granddaughter will have to live.
“Kaia is no longer the Kaia that we knew,” Kirkland told reporters. “But Kaia is a fighter, so she continues to fight. She continues to tell us she wants her old life back.”
In 2021, the Florida Legislature passed the Kaia Rolle Act, which set a minimum age of arrest to seven years old after a previous version of the bill that set it to 10 failed to clear the Florida House the previous year. Though she was commemorated after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law, it had been months after Kaia had already aged out of its main provision.
Kirkland said she is dedicated to increasing Florida’s minimum age to 14, a campaign she hopes to expand nationwide, calling it her “life’s mission.”
“If there is any way I can prevent even a handful, even one other child, from suffering what Kaia suffered and one other family from enduring what our family endured, I would feel good about it,” she said. “There is no way a minimum age of 7 can be allowed to stand.”
Twenty-four U.S. states have no minimum age for prosecuting children, and there is no federal law mandating one, according to the National Juvenile Justice Network, which calls the U.S. an “outlier” as most countries set the age to 14.
Of the states that do have a minimum age, Florida’s is the lowest while Maryland and New Hampshire have the highest at 13 years old, though all three states currently have exceptions on the books.
More than 2,000 children ages 5 to 12 were arrested in Florida during fiscal year 2021-2022, making up about 5% of youth arrests, according to the latest Department of Juvenile Justice data. The DJJ recorded 6,493 arrests in schools statewide, mostly in middle and high schools while disproportionately affecting Black students.
And as an Orlando Sentinel investigation pointed out months after Kaia’s arrest, whether a child is arrested at school often depends on the law enforcement agency, a pattern data suggest persists.
“We know this cannot stand,” said Bacardi Jackson, interim deputy legal director for children’s rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center who spoke alongside Kirkland on Monday. “We know we have to call on our political leaders to do something different. We can have a different Florida.”
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