A 5-year-old Florida boy, who police say severely beat his teacher but will not be charged over the incident, lacked the criminal intent that would be needed for prosecution, legal experts said.
The attack left a special education instructor at Pines Lakes Elementary School "sitting on the ground against the wall" when first responders reached her, as she appeared "to be in a faint state," according to Pembroke Pines police.
The teacher was hospitalized with a concussion and won't return to the classroom anytime soon, her union president has said. Broward County Public Schools have declined to reveal any circumstances behind the March 2 incident.
"We will not be placing charges against the child," Pembroke Pines Police Department spokeswoman Amanda Conwell said in statement to NBC News on Wednesday. "In addition, the victim does not wish to prosecute."
Jason B. Blank, chairman of the Florida Bar's Criminal Law Section, agreed with the decision, especially with the attack happening in a special education setting.
"I have never seen a 5-year-old criminally prosecuted for anything like this, especially with the set of special circumstances on top of it," Blank said. "I don't think that was ever practical."
Despite that police statement, the ultimate decision whether to press a criminal case would land with the local State Attorney’s Office (SAO) and a spokeswoman for that prosecutorial agency has declined comment.
The SAO, though, did cite a Florida statute that appears to rule out prosecution of any child younger than 7. However, that same code also says anyone suspected of "forcible felony," such as aggravated assault, is eligible for prosecution no matter the age.
So in theory, a case could still bought against that youngster, but Univeristy of Miami law professor Craig Trocino said the likelihood of a prosecution here was always nearly zero.
"Well, we are in Florida, so I'd be reluctant to say there’s no chance," Trocino said mockingly. "But I would personally, professionally and legally find it outrageous if someone decided to attempt to prosecute a 5-year-old for aggravated battery. I can't conceive of a way the state would be able to lodge an argument that a 5-year-old is capable of generating the specific intent necessary to make this a crime."
The under-7 option set by Florida lawmakers gives prosecutors just enough wiggle room if there was ever a truly "heinous" crime, according to Blank.
"For purposes of the ability to prosecute children under the age of 7 appears to be reserved for the most heinous of crimes, if necessary," Blank said. "That's why they didn't want to completely shut the door on that. But even so, you'd be hard pressed to find a prosecutor who'd believe that it would be ethical to prosecute a child that young for something like this."
Jenny Root, a professor of special education at Florida State University, said she hopes the Broward County incident highlights the daily challenges faced by teachers who work with children with special needs.
Root said special ed teachers across the nation have been limited by staffing shortages that have left them without a full array of resources to help students, such as speech pathologists, occupational therapists, behavioral therapist, doctors and teaching assistants.
And with all students having lost social development time due to the Covid-19 restrictions imposed in March 2020, the challenges of special education have never been more severe.
"As a result of the pandemic and staffing shortages, maybe they were used to being in a classroom with three teacher assistants and now they have one or two," Root said. "And now they don't have the resources to do what they know they're able to do to be able to support their students."
Jack Scott, who teaches special education at Florida Atlantic University and is executive director of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, said he worries the Pines Lakes Elementary School beating will lead some teachers and administrators to be less supportive of efforts aimed at integrating special education students into mainstream settings.
"People in general education, non-special ed, they're often worried about having to deal with some difficult special ed kids," he said.
"The staffing for that, the programming for that, has to be appropriate. You have to count on that."