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.
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.