Janay Jelks loves singing, coloring and Dora the Explorer. She’s 12 but has the mental age of a preschooler. She also has a felony rap sheet.
Janay has been arrested three times since September at Cherokee School, an Orlando elementary school designed to be a safe place for the youngest Orange County students with severe emotional problems.
She’s not alone. Since the start of school in August, police have arrested 11 students a total of 14 times at Cherokee, which has an enrollment of 57. That’s nearly one in five students.
The spate of arrests, which includes at least nine felony charges, has alarmed Orange County’s juvenile justice community and prompted a judge to meet with the school’s principal.
It is “ridiculous” to criminalize students for behavior that is tied to their disabilities, said Olga Telleria-Khoudmi, juvenile division chief for the Orange/Osceola Public Defender’s Office.
“That’s not the way to deal with these kids,” Telleria-Khoudmi said, noting an arrest can follow children for the rest of their lives. “You have to have a little bit of tolerance. …
You’re not dealing with a regular school.”
Janay was charged with felonies for poking a police officer with her finger, throwing small plastic blocks in her teacher’s face and hitting her principal, according to interviews and arrest affidavits. In Florida, any battery on a teacher or law enforcement officer is a felony, even if there is no injury.
“I’m just really shocked. Really? Felony assault?” said Letasha Brown, Janay’s mother.
Circuit Judge Alicia Latimore, one of three judges who handles juvenile delinquency cases in Orange, was so concerned about the arrests that she visited Cherokee’s campus this fall.