Child, 6, cuffed for his own safety? Parents say school, police mishandled hyperactive son

June 11, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Jerrell Murray was acting up at school one Friday, as was his custom. He hit his teacher, then head-butted the assistant principal in the face. But this time, he wasn't just sent to the office or suspended.

He was placed face down on the floor by a police officer, he says, handcuffed around the wrists and ankles, carried out of the school and taken to a hospital.

Jerrell is 4 feet tall, 65 pounds and 6 years old.

His parents say the response to the May 17 incident at Woodmoor Elementary School was abuse and worry about potential long-term effects on a boy who already has his share of emotional problems. They want to know why school officials, who knew that Jerrell was taking medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, didn't call an ambulance instead.

"My child is a human being, not an animal," says Gary H. Murray, adding that he has noticed changes in Jerrell. Days after being handcuffed, the boy who once loved police officers asked his father a troubling question.

"He wanted me to take him to the store and buy him a real gun so he could shoot the police officer," his father recalls.

Baltimore County police say Jerrell was acting violently and was handcuffed for his own safety. The officer, who was at the school that morning on another matter, volunteered to take control of the boy.

"He had to do something to protect the child," says county police spokesman Bill Toohey. "If, for example, the child had hit his head on a desk, we'd have a tragic situation."

Principal Antoinette G. Lyles says she can't discuss the case because of laws protecting student confidentiality.

Schools spokesman Donald I. Mohler III says: "It was the principal's understanding the police intervened because they thought the child was in danger of hurting himself. I don't think the school would overrule a police officer who appears to be acting in the best interest of the child."

But school board member Robert Dashiell agrees with the parents and says administrators should have called for medical help.

"Given what they knew, it should have been obvious that it was medical attention, not police attention, that was required," Dashiell says. "If they had no other avenue for medical attention, they should have called an ambulance. I don't want to see elementary school kids taken out by police."

A children's legal advocacy group plans to take on the case and investigate whether the handcuffs were necessary, and whether Jerrell's subsequent eight-day suspension was warranted and should remain on his record. The group, Advocates for Children & Youth, also will consider seeking a different educational setting for Jerrell, who, his parents acknowledge, has been chronically disruptive in school since prekindergarten.

"It causes me great concern to handcuff a child who already appears to have some problems," says Lina Ayers, the attorney who plans to represent the family. "One worries that it could have long-term damaging effects."

Jerrell, a solidly built boy in constant motion, has a thick record of school infractions.

School documents provided by his mother, Octavia, who spoke candidly about his problems, show a previous suspension for assaulting a teacher and constantly disrupting class, along with a stream of other complaints. Examples include screaming, crying, climbing on furniture, throwing beans at the cafeteria ceiling and hitting other students with an empty drink container.

From his teacher have come a series of handwritten notes, many saying Jerrell had a good day, except for occasional back talk, general silliness or running in the hall.

School officials have held several meetings to discuss Jerrell's progress, but family members did not attend, records show. Octavia Murray, who is divorced from Jerrell's father, says she can't make the meetings because she works in Rockville, and her mother, who has joint custody of the boy, runs a home day care.

Jerrell sees a psychiatrist and a psychologist monthly, and takes medication twice a day, Octavia Murray says.

On the morning of May 17, according to police and the family, Jerrell and his classmates were drawing pictures of clouds when Jerrell got into an argument with his teacher over the assignment and hit her on the shoulder repeatedly for 10 to 15 minutes. Jerrell describes it as an attention-getting "tap."

The teacher, Lois Ellingwood, sent Jerrell to the office, yelling, crying and thrashing about, police say. When Assistant Principal Marcia J. Wolf knelt to talk to Jerrell, he butted her in the face with his head and struck her.

The police officer stepped in, handcuffed Jerrell's wrists and legs and drove him to Northwest Hospital Center, where the boy's grandmother, Daisy Glover, found him in a room, with his shirt and undershirt off. Glover refused treatment for the boy and took him to her Baltimore County home, where he lives during the school week.

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