No longer innocent

youths now inspire fear

April 22, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE DAY before the bloodshed at Columbine High School in Colorado, there was this schoolboy scene in Maryland: Carroll County deputy sheriffs arrested a diminutive fourth-grader and took him away in handcuffs and leg irons.

We have learned to fear our children until further notice.

Just hours before the shootings in Littleton, Colo., left 15 dead and 23 wounded Tuesday, there was the 10-year-old at the Carroll County Courthouse, waiting to see a juvenile court master, with his father, declaring, "When they arrested him, they put him in shackles, and he's crying, 'Please, Dad, help me, Dad,' and there's nothing I can do. He didn't kill nobody, he didn't rob nobody."

But we fear making such distinctions now. Haunted by violence across the country, we no longer know where reasonable security ends and reflexive overreaction begins. Until further notice, all fourth-graders are considered future 11th-graders, two of whom are dead in Colorado after slaughtering schoolmates.

Once, they were somebody's innocent children. Tuesday they walked through school with blood in their eyes. They were outcasts who imagined they had nothing to lose. A good day to die, they announced as they opened fire.

In Maryland, only a few hours before the news reached everyone about the awful events in Littleton, we had Sheriff Ken Tregoning at the Carroll County Courthouse, explaining the need for handcuffs and leg irons on 10-year-olds.

He knew about the father's complaints, and knew about a newspaper story in that day's Cecil County Whig -- "Boy, 10, Arrested, Taken from School" -- that ran atop the newspaper's front page.

Doesn't matter, Tregoning said. Department policy, he said, to shackle all prisoners while transferring them. But why, he was asked, is such a policy necessary for 10-year-old boys accused of such a minor crime as picking up a rock and tossing it through a window?

Tregoning mentioned young people and violence across America. He said this is why his deputies have to shackle all people today. He didn't have to mention the geography: the schools in places such as Springfield, Ore., and Fayetteville, Tenn., with gunfire and death. And Edinboro, Pa., and West Paducah, Ky., and Pearl, Miss., dots on a map with corpses in the schoolyard.

And Jonesboro, Ark., March of '98, where two boys opened fire at a middle school and shot four girls and a teacher to death and wounded 10 others. One of the killers was 13. The other was 11.

The boy accused in Carroll County is 10 years old. The sheriffs say he only had a rock, and not a gun. He's a good student who's never been in trouble before. But our instinct now is to duck anyway. We are wary of our children, who seem to have gotten away from us.

So Carroll County sheriffs went to Cecil County, where sheriffs there had pulled the pupil from his fourth-grade class at Holly Hall Elementary School. The boy lives in Elkton with his father. The parents are separated. Last year, sheriffs say, the boy was in Westminster, where he and a friend felt a little mischievous. One of them allegedly picked up a rock and heaved it through the window of a 1985 Dodge Horizon.

The damage: $675. The police sent a February court date to his mother's address in Westminster, charging the boy with malicious destruction of property. The father and son never heard about it. They failed to appear. A warrant was issued for the boy's arrest.

The father was there when sheriffs arrived Monday and put the fourth-grader into leg irons, and there was nothing he could do to calm his son as they took him away.

"It's not his fault he didn't go to court," the father said. "It's not like he woke up and said, 'I'm not going to court today.'"

The sheriffs took the boy to Waxter Children's Center, in Laurel, to stay Monday night. On Tuesday, the day the whole country turned on television and saw the bodies of the Colorado wounded carried from a schoolyard, here was Sheriff Ken Tregoning sounding absolutely prescient.

"We're seeing more violence from kids all the time now," he said. "The change is dramatic. We had a 19-year-old girl here [accused of stabbing] her mother to death. We have middle school kids bringing weapons to school. The violence has made us re-evaluate everything. We're coming into contact with more youthful, violent offenders."

Tregoning has 31 years in law enforcement. He said his deputies have to be protected, and the public has to be protected, and this is why there are shackles on all people in his custody, including those who seem innocent.

And this was before the news began arriving from Columbine High School.

On Tuesday, a Carroll County juvenile master postponed the accused rock thrower's hearing. The father, still miffed, said his son had been unnecessarily frightened. He said suspects are put in shackles "so they won't run away. But my son's not a runner."

But there's more to it now, and nobody's entirely sure where to draw the line. We live in a violent time, said Tregoning. We're so frightened of our children now, we have to put 10-year-olds in irons to protect ourselves.

Pub Date: 04/22/99

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