Schools get tough on violent pupils

Freetown 2nd-grader charged with assault

February 04, 1999|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

A second-grader pretended to urinate on an aide, then shoved a teacher at Freetown Elementary School last week, say administrators who called police. It was not the first such call Anne Arundel County police have received.

Since September, 17 assaults have been reported by the county's elementary schools, school records show, 10 of them involving pupil violence against teachers. Increasingly, as at Freetown, principals are taking a hard line against youthful offenders.

The 7-year-old was charged as a juvenile with second-degree assault.

Educators say safe schools demand such harsh measures.

"It has been happening for years," said Suzy Jablinske, head of the county teachers union. "This type of behavior can't be tolerated in schools. Some principals don't want to call the police, but if they don't, it sends a message that we are just letting these things go."

The local and state teachers unions have supported Freetown Principal Sharon Herring and teacher Tamela Williams for their decision to call police and insist that the boy be charged.

But some national experts decry the presence of police in schools and the "demonization" of troubled and unruly children. Critics say bringing police officers into schools does nothing but traumatize children and clog the court system.

"This all comes from the zero-tolerance concept," said Boston criminal defense attorney Peter Elikann, whose book "Super Predators, the Demonization of Children by Law Enforcement" will be published this summer. "Why can't schools deal with this? Why do we have to call in the police? Are teachers that impotent now?"

Susan P. Leviton, founder of Advocates for Children and Youth of Baltimore and a professor at the University of Maryland Law School, said, "Charges for a 7-year-old? I really think we have lost it. What happened to getting sent to the principal's office?"

According to a police account of the incident 9: 30 a.m. Thursday at Freetown, Williams was calling the principal's office when the boy, whose name is being withheld by police and school officials because of his age, shoved her and pushed her.

Williams was trying to notify the office because, according to the police report, the boy pretended to urinate on Williams' teaching assistant a few seconds before. The child had been "disruptive" throughout Williams' reading class, police said.

The child would not answer the officer's questions, said police spokeswoman Carol Frye, so Herring asked him to wait in an outer office while the officer met with Williams. After a few minutes, a secretary in the outer office interrupted the meeting in the principal's office because the youth was hiding under a desk.

The child's mother was called, and she drove her son home, where the officer filled out a juvenile citation. The youth must appear in juvenile court, where a juvenile master will determine his punishment.

Michael Walsh, spokesman for the county schools, said state law requires teachers to call police and report all assaults on school property. State and federal laws prohibit him from commenting on the case or saying if the child has been expelled, he said.

According to the student handbook sent home with all 74,000 county pupils, any pupil who commits a "an act of violence" will be suspended or expelled.

"Very often, even if the student is the aggressor, the teacher ends up being charged with assault because anything that she does to stop it is construed as an assault," said Maxine Woodland, spokeswoman for the Maryland State Teachers Association. "It's a no-win situation. Some parents don't believe that their kids have done what they have done. Often, the only alternative they have is to call the police."

Frye said that whether juveniles are charged with crimes in such situations is mostly up to the officer involved, who considers the child's history, what happened and whether the teacher wants charges filed.

Leviton said such charges bog down the state juvenile justice department and do nothing to ensure that the child will never hit a teacher again.

"Getting tough makes a good sound bite, but it clogs up the courts," she said. "What we need to be able to do is get more programs in schools to deal with this type of behavior."

Sun staff writer Devon Spurgeon contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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