A 13-year-old in Putnam County is facing felony charges for repeating a rumor

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In Florida’s effort to better protect school campuses, students themselves are being more closely policed.

Jayceon Ware was five weeks into his eighth grade year. He didn’t expect to learn firsthand a section of Florida law: repeating a rumor can be a felony.

He’d heard there would be a shooting in late September at his school — Interlachen Junior-Senior High. Deputies told Jayceon the rumor wasn’t credible and to stop repeating it. After he said it again to another student, the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office charged him with a second-degree felony for “making terroristic threats,” for which he’ll appear before a judge later this month.

Jayceon is one of an increasing number of students charged with felonies for school threat misinformation since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooting three years ago, according to local justice officials.

“Give me one more month and I’ll be taller than you!” Jayceon, 13, joked to his dad, Terrell Sylvester, in the Putnam Alliance for Equity and Justice office in Palatka. The organization is fundraising to hire a lawyer for Jayceon. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

The sheriff’s office posted Jayceon’s photos and arrest information on its Facebook page with 63,000 followers, a practice legal in Florida and not exclusive to Putnam County.

In one photo, Jayceon faces a law enforcement vehicle on the wooded dirt road outside his home near Hawthorne, slender arms bent behind his back. He cranes his neck to look at the camera, eyebrows raised, while an officer secures handcuffs around his 13-year-old wrists.

The other photo is his mugshot, his face drained of expression.

While a debate over its appropriateness raged in the comments below the post about Jayceon, one person posted a comment on the photos themselves: “Thug.”

The post was shared hundreds of times across Facebook and received nearly a thousand comments.

Someone looking at these photos can’t see Jayceon’s smile, which comes easily around his dad. He loves to draw anime and read mystery books. He likes history and science, but not writing — the words get all fumbled when he tries to put them on paper. His best friend is his dog Mufasa.

The incident report only lists his legal name, not the nickname his dad gave him when Jayceon began training mixed martial arts four years ago —  “Kaiju,” the kind of giant monster found in Japanese science fiction movies.

Jayceon and his dad, Terrell Sylvester, planned to go to New Zealand together next year to see the big Izzie-Whittaker rematch. When Jayceon turned 17, he would go to Texas to train with his old coach and maybe get introduced to Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

He’d been working toward big dreams, but now his future isn’t in his hands.

Instead, Jayceon’s experience is being turned into a lesson.

How is this a felony?

“Parents and guardians,” the sheriff’s office’s Facebook post reads, “we cannot stress enough the importance of talking to your students about the seriousness of spreading false information.

“We will treat every rumor and threat as real and will prosecute every time in order to ensure our schools, students, faculty, staff and families are safe.”

Jayceon didn’t make a threat to commit violence himself, according to both the incident report and Jayceon. He passed on what he heard and what he was shown on social media on a friend’s phone.

“I was being a dumb kid,” Jayceon said. “I thought I knew everything and I didn’t. It was a mistake, and I realize that.”

He’s being charged under a Florida statute that makes any false report about a bomb or shooting made “with intent to deceive” a second-degree felony, regardless of individual circumstances.

Putnam County Chief Deputy Col. Joseph Wells said the decision to charge Jayceon was made in consultation with the sheriff’s general counsel, the State Attorney’s office and a judge.

The DeLand public defender division chief has seen an influx of juveniles being charged under this statute since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, with defendants as young as 12.

He said stringent laws are necessary to allow his office to take quick action against threats to school safety.

Allison Hughes, the division chief in DeLand for the 7th Circuit Public Defender, said one of the biggest problems with this statute is that it’s incredibly broad.

One child might be overheard making a joke to their friend. Another might create an anonymous social media account and post threats with specific dates or to specific people. Both scenarios fall under the same statute and would be charged as second-degree felonies. The statute doesn’t allow judges to withhold adjudication.

Hughes would like to see flexibility in the law to account for less serious circumstances. 

Hard numbers are not publicly available, but Hughes said she’s seen an influx of juveniles being charged under this statute since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in 2018. In Volusia County, where she practices, she sees about two per month, with defendants as young as 12.

Following the shooting, many Florida laws were updated or clarified to allow for more effective response to school threats, Wells said.

“I’ve been in law enforcement long enough to remember Columbine,” he said, “and we saw significant changes to school safety . . . after Columbine. But that didn’t, in my opinion, hold a candle to the changes that have occurred after Marjory Stoneman Douglas.”

Marjory Stoneman Douglas was the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history, and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office received criticism for not following up on multiple warnings about the shooter and for remaining outside the school while the shooting was taking place.

The tragedy spurred a blitz of legislative effort that resulted in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act being signed into law only a few weeks later.

Survivors and advocates challenge lawmakers in the state capitol on gun control reform on Feb. 21, 2018, just one week after the shooting took place. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, passed weeks later, would change the relationship between Florida schools and law enforcement. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The act increased firearm restrictions and developed new school safety regulations that required schools and law enforcement to work more closely together and assign at least one officer to every campus.

Wells said the number of investigations of school threats has risen “many fold” since. He believes it’s likely the result of social media trends and the work his office has done to form partnerships with the community and schools.

The Putnam County Sheriff’s Office and the school district presented their Guardian program — a program established by the act in which school staff ranging from administrators to custodians are armed to respond to school threats — at the National School Safety Conference and Exposition earlier this year.

The act also created and funded the FortifyFL app, which allows anonymous reporting of suspicious activity and threats.

“Our schools are safer now than they had ever been in my nearly 25 years of law enforcement,” Wells said.

In the effort to protect school campuses, students themselves are being more closely policed.

Below: Rev. Tommy Rodgers of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Palatka discusses the ramifications of publicizing a minor like Jayceon in a small community. Rodgers said he brought his concerns to the sheriff’s office. (Photo and audio by Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

‘We’ll get you a casserole, but what you really need is a lawyer.’

Putnam Alliance for Equity and Justice Co-Founder Rebekah Cordova said the organization reached out to Jayceon’s family to offer help after seeing the Facebook post.

“I mean, we’ll get you a casserole,” Cordova said, “but what you really need is a lawyer. Because a second-degree felony is a problem.”

The organization has raised almost $3,500 toward hiring Jayceon a lawyer since launching a GoFundMe last week.

After his arrest, Jayceon was placed for a weekend in a juvenile detention center in Volusia County 80 miles from his home. Sylvester said he and Jayceon’s mother, Markyta Ware, were told his first court date would be the following Monday morning.

But Jayceon was pulled for court on Saturday morning without his parents’ knowledge, Sylvester said — the juvenile detention center didn’t notify them.

Jayceon went to court without his parents.

“You don’t want to be there in the first place,” Jayceon said. “But to know you have no one you actually know has your best interests at heart . . . it was weird. It was mostly scary.”

His father said it broke his trust with the public defender, whose name he still has not learned.

Matthew Metz, public defender for the 7th Circuit, said it’s the responsibility of the Department of Juvenile Justice to reach out to the family members prior to the initial detention hearing. His office doesn’t receive a list of juveniles in custody on the weekends before arriving for court.

Metz said he empathizes with Jayceon’s family and his office can always take the case if they are unable to hire a private attorney.

A Department of Juvenile Justice spokesperson said they can’t respond to specifics of a juvenile’s case but are looking into the incident.

Jayceon and his mother attended the next court proceeding on Oct. 26 without a defense attorney. The judge entered a plea of “not guilty” for him and cautioned his mother to hire one quickly.

Looking for a lawyer is presenting more than just financial challenges. Cordova said local lawyers don’t want to go up against the sheriff’s office or the school district, two of the biggest employers in Putnam County.

They are hoping to hire a defense attorney from outside the county. 

Juvenile arrests were at a historic 45-year low in Florida at the end of the last fiscal year, but racial inequities persist.

According to Florida Department of Juvenile Justice data, Black youth in Florida continue to make up more than half of arrests despite being just 21% of the state’s youth population.

White youth arrested for felonies are more likely to be sent to diversion programs. Black youth, on the other hand, are much more likely to be transferred to adult court.

In the 7th Circuit, where Jayceon’s case will be heard and where the counties’ populations range between 80 to 90% white, these disparities are even wider.

Click on the image below to explore racial disparity data from Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice.

Statewide data for fiscal year 2019-2020

Will his record be expunged?

“His life is not ruined,” the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office account commented on the Facebook post. “If he shows the court remorse and he has no other offenses then the court will likely sentence him with juvenile crime prevention program and community service. He will still be able to get a job at 16 if he wants and at 18 his record is expunged.”

Hughes said she’s seen most juveniles in these cases get sent to diversion programs. If Jayceon completes a diversion program and he doesn’t pick up further criminal charges, he can apply to have his record expunged in five years.

He couldn’t make the request sooner because it’s a felony charge. Current state law allows only for minors who complete a diversion program to apply to expunge first-time misdemeanors.

She cautions her juvenile clients that expunging their records doesn’t mean they go away entirely.

State Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, is trying to change that. He has refiled a bill to expand diversion expungement for minors to include felonies and arrests beyond the first offense.

The proposal sailed through the last session without a single opposing vote, but Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed it in June, citing public safety concerns.

This time, Perry removed forcible felonies from the bill. It was unanimously recommended again by the criminal justice committee last Tuesday, with support from the Florida Police Chief Association.

State Sen. Keith Perry’s bill to expand juvenile record diversion expungement for minors was sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk for signature with no opposition last year, but the governor vetoed it. (The Florida Channel)

The definition of a forcible felony includes catch-all language that could apply to the statute Jayceon is being charged under, Hughes said, which means he still may not qualify for diversion expungement if the bill becomes law.

Hughes said she cautions her juvenile clients that expunging their records doesn’t mean they go away entirely. Some agencies — law enforcement, the courts, the military — retain access.

If Jayceon ever needed state licensing, to become a nurse or an attorney for example, he could be asked to disclose even sealed or expunged records as part of the application process.

And the social media imprint remains.

The name, photograph, address and arrest report of a child arrested for a felony are not confidential under current Florida law. Local law enforcement has discretion over whether to release them.

After the string of more than a dozen bomb and shooting threats to Alachua County public school campuses this fall, law enforcement agencies published the information of the students arrested but not their photographs.

On Oct. 28, Lee County Sheriff’s Office posted the information and mugshot of a 12-year-old charged with threatening to conduct a mass shooting. Law enforcement located guns locked in safes in his home, they wrote, and “two airsoft guns in [his] room.”

Wells said he hopes the public understands the juveniles they post about are innocent until proven guilty.

But the public may never know what is proven — while juvenile arrest information is not confidential, the court files are.

Hughes said allowing the public to only see arrest information, what she calls “the tip of the iceberg,” is misleading and frustrating.

“You’re allowing only the worst part of the case to be disclosed to the public,” Hughes said. “Maybe this particular child actually didn’t do that, or maybe the victim was lying, or maybe there’s a ton of mitigation. But none of that can be disclosed.”

Wells said community conversations following the post about Jayceon prompted his office to reconsider its policy of posting booking photos of juveniles. Moving forward, he said, they will only post them when he and the sheriff determine there is an ongoing community threat.

For Jayceon, it’s too late.

‘Thug,’ ‘celebrity,’ or 13-year-old

Jayceon’s family don’t have internet access at their house in Johnson, an unincorporated area just east of Hawthorne.

Sylvester said they found out about the Facebook post when one of Markyta Ware’s coworkers texted her a screenshot while Jayceon was on a 10-day suspension from school.

When Jayceon returned to school, students lined up on the sidewalk to give him high fives as he headed into the alternate classroom for in-school suspensions, he said.

To become “social media famous” without even having a social media account was the stuff of middle school legend, especially in a small town like Interlachen.

The attention makes Jayceon uncomfortable. He compares it to the wrestler “The Miz” — achieving fame for a mistake.

“It’s kind of like they label me as a celebrity,” he said. “I’m not, because I did something dumb and got in trouble for it. But they don’t see it that way.”

Sylvester said after that, school administration moved Jayceon to in-school suspension on the high school campus instead.

A spokesperson for the school system said they don’t comment on specific disciplinary actions of any student.

The tenth page of the student handbook lays out the stakes: any student determined to have violated the statute Jayceon is being charged under will be expelled for at least a year.

Sylvester said he and Ware told the school administration they didn’t want Jayceon to be placed with the older students who may have done worse things, but Assistant Principal John Thompson insisted it was the best option, and that the intervention would prevent Jayceon from becoming “a thug.”

Jayceon said he doesn’t have home internet access or social media, but the online conversation about him has caused him to spend most of his time indoors since his arrest. He likes to draw and read. (Drawing by Jayceon)

Thompson did not answer WUFT’s request for response about this comment.

From the moment he watched law enforcement put handcuffs on his son, Sylvester has felt helpless.

He said Thompson informed him kids were getting in trouble on purpose to hang out with Jayceon in the alternate class.

Jayceon is tired of the crowding, the high fives and hugs from strangers. He said one girl tried to steal a lock of his hair. Some kids threw vape pens at him.

Sylvester knows people who see the post are asking, Who are the parents of that kid?

Ware has been approached at the shoe store where she works by people she’s never seen before, Sylvester said, asking about her son.

“It’s just awkward,” he said, “so we tend to not go as many places as we used to.”

Asked what outcome he’s hoping for, Jayceon didn’t mention his legal record at all: “that when this is all over, everyone leaves me alone and life can go back to somewhat normal.”

Jayceon counts the hurdles he’s already jumped — a drug test, three psych evaluations and 21 days of house arrest. He’s on probation now, he said.

His next court appearance is Nov. 23, but something falls on the calendar before then: his fourteenth birthday.

He plans to spend the day inside, reading. He will ask his dad to make empanadas. He will ask his mom to let Mufasa in the house, just this once.

Jayceon hasn’t trained mixed martial arts since his arrest. He doesn’t know why, he just hasn’t felt like it.

Instead, he started running, longer and longer distances.

 

Update, May 16, 2022: Terrell Sylvester said his son accepted a plea deal dropping all charges in exchange for writing an apology letter, a monthly visit with a probate officer through June 2022, and creating a TikTok video about peer pressure – though  Jayceon has neither social media accounts nor a cell phone.

About Katie Hyson

Katie Hyson is a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News covering racial and rural inequities in East Gainesville and north central Florida. She can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org. Click here to learn how you can support her reporting.

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