Nichole Guillory, PhD - Mothering in Color
I am thankful that you made the hard decision to release the video footage of two police officers arresting six- year-old Kaia at her charter school, the Emma and Lucious Nixon Academy, in Orlando, Florida. As a mom who is raising a Black child in the South, I can only imagine the great risk you took in making the decision to release the video of what I’m sure is the most traumatic moment in young Kaia’s life. The site of the arrest, specifically that it took place at Kaia’s school, is what compels me to write.
I have been an educator since 1993, first as an English teacher and now as a teacher educator, and as such, I have spent much of my adult life in schools as well as studying them. Being a teacher educator has afforded me the opportunity to work in a variety of schools: big and small, private and public, well-resourced and under-resourced, child-centered and teacher-centered, career prep and college prep, and the list continues. I know schools well. Watching the arrest, which would have been horrifying in any setting, I cannot help but think that in the one place where adults are always ethically and legally bound to keep children safe, we failed miserably.
Yes, I use “we” on purpose here. While I am not the teacher who called the administrator who called the police officer who arrested your daughter, I am a teacher educator who understands that my work is tied to a village of educators, which as I see it, makes us all collectively responsible for providing (y)our child a safe school environment. Our village failed Kaia and you.
For those unfamiliar with events surrounding Kaia’s arrest, I offer here a detailed account culled from the many news reports I reviewed, and while these news reports do not capture exactly what happened to Kaia that awful day, I offer this account in hopes that the adults reading my open letter—especially teachers—will see just how many times adults who were entrusted by Kaia’s family to keep her safe at school not only failed to protect her, but also continued throughout the day to inflict psychological and physical harm.
I am intentionally repeating Kaia’s name and her age often because I hope to remind readers of her humanity, that she is someone’s precious child, sister, niece, cousin, or granddaughter, because all too frequently these days, it seems that some of us continue to ignore that school-aged Black girls are children, that Black girls are human beings. That I feel it necessary to write that last statement and it’s worth repeating—Black girls are human beings--shows just how hopeless I feel some days as a Black mom during these troubled and troubling times. To have to remind law enforcement that a six-year-old baby should never be escorted out of her school in handcuffs is bad enough, but to feel a need to remind that child’s teachers and principals that they did not treat Kaia like one of their own children, like an important and deserving member of our village, is even worse.
Kaia isn’t the nameless “Six-Year-Old First Grader Arrested” that has populated news headlines. Kaia is a baby—and I don’t mean that description figuratively. Kaia was six years old at the time of her arrest in September 2019. This is the same age that my own son learned how to tie his own shoelaces well enough that they did not come untied throughout the day.
Before Kaia’s arrest, she allegedly engaged in behavior described as “kicking and screaming.” School officials’ statements say that on the morning of the arrest (around 8 am), Kaia wanted to wear sunglasses and was “screaming and pulling on her classroom door,” which was reportedly witnessed by the assistant principal. News reports indicate that the assistant principal and two staff members then took Kaia to the office. In her statement, the assistant principal says that Kaia “hit her in the stomach and chest area” and was “aggressive.” Multiple news outlets report uncertainty about who was responsible for calling in a school resource officer to intervene. An excerpt from the official school statement says that no one at the school asked that Kaia be arrested.
The police bodycam video shows us what happened later that school day. The video shows a school staff member reading a story to Kaia, who is clearly not kicking, screaming, punching, or yelling. Noticing the officers, Kaia asks why they are there and what the zip ties were. When one of the officers tells her that they are for her, she begins to cry. She begs and pleads with them not to handcuff her and to give her a “second chance.” S. Ramos, one of the police officers who is visible in the video, then zip ties Kaia’s wrists together behind her back and (perp) walks her to the backseat of a police SUV.
In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Kaia’s grandmother says that Kaia was initially charged with misdemeanor battery and fingerprinted and photographed, and because she was not tall enough to reach camera height, Kaia had to use a step stool. In a clip from a local news station, Kaia’s grandmother said she reminded school administrators of Kaia’s sleep apnea, which she says the school was aware of and which she connected to her granddaughter’s temper tantrums.
Several news stories indicate Dennis Turner, the other officer who arrested Kaia and was serving as a school resource officer, went back to the school and bragged that Kaia broke his arrest record of youngest offenders, that his youngest arrest before Kaia was seven years old. News stories also report that this officer—who is a Black man—arrested a six-year-old boy the same day of Kaia’s arrest.
The Orlando Police Department has since apologized to you, and they report Dennis Turner, who was already retired, was fired from the school resource officer pool. S. Ramos, the officer who handcuffed and walked Kaia out of school, was cleared of all charges because the police department says he followed protocol in calling a supervisor to get approval for the arrest of a child younger than twelve years old.
I could use the remainder of this letter to reflect on the horrific actions of the two police officers, or more importantly, Florida law that would even allow a six-year-old to be arrested in the first place. Or perhaps you’re hoping I discuss the systemic dimension of racism and how an already complicated arrest of a Black girl student is made even more complicated because the arresting police officer is a Black man. These are all worthy of serious discussion.
However, as an educator, I am most appalled by the actions of other state actors also culpable in the violence perpetrated against Kaia: school administrators at Emma and Lucious Nixon Academy who called a resource (police) officer in to settle a situation with a six-year-old child that did not warrant intervention by law enforcement. I saw at least one member of the school office staff telling Kaia she had to go with the police officers and that the handcuffs would not hurt; this is the same staff member who was reading a story to Kaia when the police officers arrived. The video also shows at least one other adult at her desk, sitting in silence while Kaia begged for help as the policemen walked her out of the front office.
I’m well aware that perhaps these two women were not administrators at the school and remained silent because they had to in order to keep their jobs. However, because I have spent a good amount of time in schools, I also know it is not too big of a leap to assume at least one school administrator was also likely present in the school main office—even if not visible on the police bodycam video—and within earshot of Kaia’s plaintive pleas for help and to be “let go.” I understand school administrators have a responsibility to keep everyone safe in their buildings, but what danger did six-year-old Kaia really present to school staff and students?
I fear what is more likely is that the adults responsible for her arrest wanted to teach young Kaia (and all the mostly Black students in the school) a lesson in control and submission, to teach Kaia that her Black girl body was out of control and had to be tamed, that non-compliance was unacceptable. Kaia had to become less human—less Black person, less girl—to all adults responsible for her arrest. Otherwise, how do you explain the many chances adults had to intervene, to reverse bad decision-making before it became harmful to Kaia (and her classmates), to stop inflicting violence on a child who needed help not handcuffs?
I want my teacher colleagues to know Kaia is not the first six-year-old Black girl to be arrested and handcuffed in U.S. schools, nor is she the youngest. The list of Black girl students to be policed and overdisciplined in schools is too long. See, for example, the case of eight-year-old Jmiyha Rickman in Alton, Illinois. AND six-year-old Salecia Johnson in Milledgeville, Georgia. AND five-year-old Ja’eisha Scott in St. Petersburg, Florida. AND six-year-old Desre'e Watson in Avon, Florida. I urge all teachers to read Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected, by the African American Policy Forum, and Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, by Monique W. Morris. These books are some of the best research on the school to prison pipeline for Black girls, but, sadly, there is much to study and much that has been studied.
In moving forward from that awful day, your family had the added burden of finding (and paying for) a private school that does not have a police officer on site. Kaia deserves to be in a school with adults she can trust, who see her particular brilliance, who can bring some safety and normalcy back to her school life. You have visited Florida House Representatives to urge state legislators to pass the Kaia Rolle Act, which requires Florida schools and law enforcement agencies to have a policy in place against the arrest of children under 10 years of age. We know you wanted the original bills that—if they had made it out of committee—would have prevented the arrest of children under 12 years old.
I write to make you a promise, no matter how small an act this might be. I promise I will never forget Kaia Rolle. She will forever be at the forefront of the work I do as an educator. I feel a renewed purpose for building more classrooms where Black girls in particular are shown care and love such that they cannot help but love and care for themselves and each other. From this point forward, I will remind the teachers I work with that we are a village with a communal responsibility to recognize the humanity of Black girls, that they belong to a family and a community who love them more than life and in whom all their hope is bound. I sincerely hope Kaia is in a classroom where she will learn how to dream again and build into existence the future she imagines for herself.
Nichole Guillory, PhD, is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kennesaw State University. She publishes on the experiences of women of color in the academy. She is mom to Nicholas, the love of her life. We couldn't be happier that she has agreed to pen the Mothering in Color series for WellAcademic.