Teen draws probation for school fight Howard teacher died shortly after trying to interrupt melee

Charge was reduced

Wilde Lake High conflict prompted stricter policies

November 27, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

A Howard circuit judge sentenced an 18-year-old Elkridge woman to probation yesterday for her role in a schoolyard brawl that preceded the death of a Columbia teacher who tried to stop it.

The widow of science teacher Lawrence C. Hoyer took meticulous notes as Erica Lynn Gresham was given 18 months' probation and ordered to perform 60 hours of community service for her role in the melee in May with 11 other students, most of them girls.

Gresham pleaded guilty to reduced charges of disturbing school operations in a plea bargain with prosecutors. She had been charged with second-degree assault and trespassing.

Without mentioning Hoyer's death, the former Howard High cheerleader apologized for fighting two other girls with a souvenir minibaseball bat.

"I am sorry for anything that happened as a result of this fight," Gresham told Judge Dennis M. Sweeney.

Now a freshman at Tennessee State University, Gresham is studying special education and working in a day care center.

The fatal heart attack of Hoyer, 60, brought into sharp focus rising student violence in Howard County schools and spurred a disciplinary crackdown at Wilde Lake High School.

Phyllis Hoyer said the death of her husband should send a message across the state. She has attended all the court hearings of the students involved and has a notebook filled with details on each case.

'Violence daily'

"I have to speak for my husband. That's why I'm not Mrs. Nice Guy," Hoyer said outside the courtroom. "Violence is occurring on a daily basis in schools throughout the state. School violence took my husband's life."

She criticized prosecutors for entering into a plea agreement with Gresham, saying the state "sold out."

Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon said she understood that Mrs. Hoyer would want more serious consequences for the students. "The disposition of these cases could never really adequately address her loss," McLendon said.

The teacher, who often came home with bruises from breaking up fights, dived into the middle of the fight that day. He was kicked while on the ground by other students involved in the fight, according to prosecutors.

He collapsed after escorting one of the students into the school and died at Howard County General Hospital of a heart attack.

No bruises found

None of the students was charged with causing Hoyer's death. The autopsy report showed that Hoyer had suffered from heart disease and that no bruises were found on his body. Prosecutors said at the time that there was no way to prove that the fight -- or individual students -- caused the popular teacher's death.

Instead, 12 students were charged with crimes ranging from assault to disorderly conduct.

"The kids [must understand] the consequences of their actions," said Howard Assistant State's Attorney William Tucker, chief of the juvenile division. "No one expected this person to die, but they have to understand these things happen."

Tucker said that six months after the fight, it remains unclear what took place that day.

"Everyone says, 'You hit me first,' " Tucker said yesterday. "It was a melee. And no matter what happened, they all disturbed school operations."

In court yesterday, prosecutors said Gresham and a 15-year-old Wilde Lake girl got into an argument. The next day, Gresham traveled from Howard High to Wilde Lake High with several other students to pick up her godson and his mother, a student. Gresham and the 15-year-old had another altercation in the hall.

Outside the school, a fight broke out. Mrs. Hoyer said the dispute between the girls was long-standing.

Prosecutors said one 15-year-old girl was found guilty in juvenile court of disorderly conduct and disturbing school operations. A second 15-year-old girl was found guilty of those charges and second-degree assault, Hoyer said. They are scheduled to be sentenced in January.

Another girl was tried in juvenile court but the disposition of that case could not be learned.

Disorderly conduct trials

Three other juveniles face trials. Two boys from Wilde Lake High and one girl from Howard High will be tried on disorderly conduct charges in January, Tucker said.

Also in January, Dawann Rondray Hebron, 18, is scheduled to stand trial in Circuit Court for disturbing school operations. According to court records, Hebron told police he went to Wilde Lake High to protect Gresham.

The remaining cases were handled by the Department of Juvenile Justice and were not sent to court.

Meanwhile, the school system has taken steps to crack down on disciplinary issues. In response to the incident -- started when Howard High students left their campus in the middle of the school day and went to Wilde Lake High -- school officials have implemented stricter trespassing policies. Violators now can be expelled.

Keeping watch

At Wilde Lake, new Principal Roger L. Plunkett has assigned teachers to keep watch over students from posts in the building during the school day.

In the summer, he also requested that about 29 problem students and their parents attend conferences at school. In each case, he said, they discussed what went wrong last year and what needs to change this year.

Hoyer's death came on the heels of alarming reports about the increase in school violence in Howard. Suspensions of Howard County students grew by more than 50 percent between the 1994-1995 school year and last school year.

Hoyer said her husband admired Plunkett and was pleased a man who believed in strong discipline was taking over.

"People would say, 'How are things at school, Larry?' He would say, 'Things are wild at Wilde Lake.' "

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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