He’s a 14-year-old Cleveland public school student facing criminal charges for the first time.
His crime: Fare evasion, for not showing his school-issued RTA bus pass.
The pass was given to him free of charge, just like the one given to thousands of Cleveland Metropolitan School District students every year. They are contained in every student’s school I.D.
Ninth-grader Elijah Whitt was stopped twice this past school year by RTA police after exiting a Rapid train.
The first time, he told an RTA police officer that he had lost his pass. The officer gave the boy a written warning.
In February, Elijah was again stopped by an RTA officer and was found without his pass.
He said he was left confused by the police encounter and never expected to be charged criminally.
“He didn’t say it was a ticket, he said it was a warning,” he said. “So, I thought I was getting a warning.”
RTA police, in fact, issued Elijah a ticket and later sent a letter to his mother demanding she pay a $25 fine. If unpaid after 30 days, criminal fare evasion charges would be brought, the letter warned.
Leticia Maldonado, Elijah’s mother, said the family moved earlier this year and she never received the single letter sent to her home. RTA made no other effort to contact her.
It wasn't until last month, when she received a call from the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court, that she learned her son was facing criminal charges.
She said charging children who forget their passes - free passes at that - is excessive and sends the wrong message.
“We want to teach these kids responsibility, but not this way,” she said. "But to throw a kid into the juvenile court system for forgetting a bus pass that the school district gives them for free? It doesn’t make any sense.
“He's a 14-year-old kid who gets a free pass to school every day. And he's like [telling police], you know me, you see me, you know where I’m going."
RTA could not provide a copy of the letter, which was sent through regular mail. A copy does not exist, Channel 3 News was told by an RTA spokesperson.
Elijah is among 45 juveniles charged by RTA with fare evasion in the past three years. Maldonado said she doesn’t understand why he’s being charged when RTA knows he has a free pass.
RTA defends its practice and a spokesperson said the agency has no plans on changing the policy. RTA said the policy is designed to discourage students who receive free passes from sharing it with others seeking a free ride.
More than 130 students have been caught sharing their passes in recent years, spokesperson Linda Krecic said in an email to Channel 3 News.
Krecic insists Elijah is not being charged for merely forgetting his bus pass.
“The juvenile is not being prosecuted for being forgetful. The fact is that he was cited for not having proper proof of payment,” she wrote.
RTA developed its policy of pursuing criminal charges through a collaboration with the city schools, the NAACP, the ACLU, the city of Cleveland and the juvenile court, she added.
The school district paid RTA about $5 million this year to provide 18,000 free passes for students to travel to school. Students are required to carry their IDs while riding RTA. Passes are randomly checked by RTA police, usually as a student exits a train.
“Unfortunately, there is evidence that some students are transferring use of their CMSD pass to unauthorized users,” Krecic said.
Elijah is not accused by RTA of giving his pass to anyone else. He has said he lost his pass. Now, he has been offered a court program for first-time offenders that could allow the charges to be dismissed after one year.
“I think we should just pay the fine and just keep going,” Elijah said.
But that’s not happening. RTA won’t back off or change their policy. Elijah’s mother believes RTA’s policy is over-reaching and excessive and the family intends to contest the charges in court.
"It’s way over the top,” she said. “Once you're in the system, you remain in the system. For something that minute? It's not warranted to me.”