Beep, beep: Hey, people, use a little intelligence

Comment

March 16, 1997|By MIKE BURNS

BEEPERS ARE both bane and blessing of the modern world of telecommunications.

These electronic pagers can get an important message to someone who's otherwise unreachable, and get it there fast. Their insistent, unregulated beep can also be a sure-fire disturbance and annoyance to meetings and households and public gatherings.

The challenge for society is reasonable and thoughtful regulation of their use.

Neither of which was exercised this month by Westminster police and by Carroll County school authorities. Their automatic, tunnel-vision reactions -- and their egregious alibis -- are a shameful reflection on the school system and the law enforcement agency.

A 13-year-old East Middle School student was handcuffed, arrested and booked by city police. The offense: having a non-working beeper at school.

No beep-beep during class. No horseplay. It was evident that the damaged apparatus, with no battery or even intact battery holder, did not function.

Nonetheless, in the non-thinking mode that afflicts most eighth-graders, Richard Morris Jr. clipped the useless artifact to his ear during class. Bingo!

That prompted a chain reaction of adult alarms that resulted in the "Book 'em, Dano -- Beeper One" command from the office of Police Chief Sam Leppo.

Make no mistake, it is a misdemeanor in Maryland law to bring onto school property a beeper to "receive or communicate messages," except for medical reasons. The law requires schools to call police.

Also make no mistake, state law gives police officers the discretion whether to arrest students or not. Officers also have the discretion whether to handcuff a youngster or not.

But in Chief Leppo's domain, the ultimate in jackboot tactics is the desirable practice. Arrest them. Cuff them. Haul them out of the school to the station. Let the courts decide. That is a mindless policy wholeheartedly endorsed by the Carroll County school board and administration.

The Maryland law was enacted in 1989 in an attempt to curb schoolkid trafficking in and transporting of illegal drugs. Beepers were affordable only for drug dealers, and could not possibly be used by working parents or latchkey children, the thinking went.

Ignoring law's provisions

The law did include provisions to mitigate against blinders-on enforcement. Such as the provision that the beeper be capable of receiving or communicating messages. Such as the purposely added provision that allows for discretionary arrest of the child.

The law aside, there's the responsibility of the school system to determine whether there is an apparent violation of the law before calling police. A nonworking, damaged pager would not, in the minds of many, justify such a good-faith conclusion.

Reasonable people will not find comfort in the remarks of Chief Leppo. "One of the things we try to do is to treat everyone the same," he said. Handcuffed arrest? "That's the position we have to take unless the school board takes a different stand." Ascertain the facts before charging a suspect? "How do we know if it's an activated paging system or not?"

Indeed, how does an officer under his command know whether a water pistol is a firearm? Whether a GI Joe plastic hand grenade is an explosive device? Whether a driver without the registration at hand has stolen the auto? In other jurisdictions, the police check it out and make an informed decision. They don't arrest every suspect of every infraction of the law. They don't cuff everybody.

As for the officials in charge of your children's education, their views are equally dismaying.

It would be "impractical" and -- the buzzword in politically correct academia these days -- "discriminatory" for school authorities to decide whether there was cause to call the cops, explained Edwin Davis, pupil services director. "Who am I to say your kid is bad?" he asked.

Del. A. Wade Kach of Baltimore County has introduced a bill to give school officials discretion in calling police for the first offense of the beeper law. (Another bill would allow beepers in student cars on school property, prompted by a similar heavy-handed bust of high school students in St. Mary's County a year ago.)

That might enlighten Carroll enforcers, but don't count on it.

Just as laws on assault and battery, vandalism, loitering, etc., require judgment in enforcement, so does the beeper law. How many cases of verbal and physical assault go unreported to police by school staff? Scuffling, threats and name-calling are not uncommon on school grounds. They should be dealt with, but certainly not with automatic arrest.

Young Morris should have been disciplined, suspended for a time (as he was), his parents called for a conference, the law clearly explained and reiterated to the student body and families.

But handcuffed arrest without any consideration of the apparent circumstances, and of the law's provisions, is a sad indication that the police and the county schools lack the critical judgment we expect from those in authority.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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