Boy goes before judge

OKEECHOBEE — As three members of the Haygood family stood before him Thursday, County Judge Gerald Bryant offered them this stern reminder:

“This is your son’s case — not yours.”

John and Louanne Haygood flanked their son, John Benjamin, as they stood in front of Judge Bryant at the May 11 hearing.

John Benjamin, 10, was arrested April 12 on a juvenile take and hold warrant charging him with battery on a school board employee — a third-degree felony. The boy was arrested on school grounds by Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) deputies.

Three facts about this case have raised the ire of young and old alike.

First, the boy was arrested on school grounds after having gone there to take a test even though he was currently under suspension.

Secondly, the arrest warrant was issued in November of 2016 after an incident in which the boy allegedly kicked and scratched a teacher. John Benjamin was suspended from school after that alleged incident.

Lastly, the family says John Benjamin is autistic.

Thursday was his arraignment hearing in front of Judge Bryant, who asked the boy’s parents if they had retained legal counsel for their son. When Louanne answered no, the judge told them if they did not have an attorney by Friday, May 19, the office of the public defender will take over the boy’s case.

“Have an attorney on board by next Friday,” directed the judge.

A Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) representative then told Judge Bryant that John Benjamin is scheduled to have an intake hearing Monday, May 15. At that hearing John Benjamin and his family will be told about the services offered by DJJ that include therapy and counseling.

The family will then have the opportunity to sign a contract that will allow DJJ to provide these services to John Benjamin.

If they don’t sign the pact, John Benjamin will be back in Judge Bryant’s courtroom for docket call Thursday, May 25.

Said assistant state attorney Ashley Albright: “If the family doesn’t sign that contract, the boy will have to be back in court May 25 for docket call and a date will be set for a non-jury trial.”

The prosecutor went on to explain if the family enters into the pact with DJJ, he will drop the charge filed against the youngster.

“Most everyone does (sign the contract),” he continued. “It’s in their best interest because then he won’t have a criminal history.”

So, is John Benjamin autistic?

“I’m not allowed to comment on that,” replied Mr. Albright. “(But) in handling this case, I am taking into account both his age and that records indicate he is on the autism spectrum.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) web site, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the name for a group of developmental disorders and includes a wide range, or spectrum, of symptoms, skills and levels of disability.

ASD includes Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder and Rett syndrome. While someone with autism has ASD, not everyone who has ASD has autism.

When talking about the incident that led to John Benjamin’s arrest, Mr. Albright said he has been able to document 55 incidents committed by the boy while in the Okeechobee school system.

“That’s only physical aggression against the other children or faculty,” he noted.

Some of the documented incidents include kicking, biting, spitting and punching.

The prosecutor then offered a few specific incidents.

• On one occasion, the boy kicked a male coach in the groin.

• The boy punched another student in the face.

• The boy stabbed another student with a pencil after he had just sharpened it and the pencil went through the other child’s jacket and punctured the skin.

• The boy intentionally stomped on a female teacher’s foot while wearing steel-toed boots and broke three of her toes. “Then, when she returned to work, he stomped on her same toes and said she deserved it,” said Mr. Albright.

• On two different occasions John Benjamin told teachers he was going to come back with a gun and kill them.

It has also been documented the boy was suspended from school for kicking and scratching para-professional Brandon Rose. After the child was suspended, Mr. Rose signed an agreement to drop the charges against John Benjamin on April 19.

That agreement, which was obtained by this newspaper on a public records request, stated Mr. Rose’s reason for dismissing the charge was because the boy “… is not in the classroom to where he may (be) a threat to other students.

“I pressed charges in order to get the ball rolling to get his mother to realize he needs additional help. I think it is now understood the additional help is needed. The students are back in a safe environment and the class can resume instruction.”

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