Boy, 10, charged in assaults on Shore

Sexual harassment alleged by 5 girls at elementary school

May 28, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

PITTSVILLE -- Just days after the Supreme Court ruled that schools can be held liable for failing to halt sexual harassment among students, a 10-year-old Wicomico County boy has been charged with four counts of assault and a fourth-degree sexual offense involving five 8- to 10-year-old girls.

The girls, enrolled in an after-school day care program operated by the county parks department at Pittsville Elementary and Middle School, told school officials and police that in a series of incidents this month the boy repeatedly approached them from behind and snapped their bra straps. One girl said the boy touched her buttocks.

Police and school officials say the ruling Monday by the high court had no direct bearing on the case but has heightened their awareness of the issues it raises.

The boy was suspended for three days because of the incidents but is back in his fifth-grade class and attended a field trip yesterday. He was charged last Friday and referred to juvenile justice authorities, who have 25 to 28 days to resolve the case or to pursue the criminal charges.

Residents of this farming community about halfway between Salisbury and Ocean City say local opinion seems to fall into two distinct camps -- those who think a schoolyard prank has been blown out of proportion and those who want the boy barred from school next fall.

"I think the court system has made an issue out of a lot of things like that," said Dave White, who owns the Pittsville Dinette down the road from the school. `I'm not saying it was right, but just about everybody did stuff like that at one time or another. It's just a different mentality today with the courts involved."

`Everybody is watching'

Countered one woman, whose three daughters attend the school: "Maybe you could just overlook this bra thing back in the '70s, but this is the '90s and this boy has a history of behavior problems. Everybody is talking about it, everybody is watching. This was not some flirty girlfriend-boyfriend kind of incident."

The mother of one the girls involved in the incidents, a 9-year-old fourth-grader, said she went to school officials after her child came home in tears, saying the boy had held the girl's arms and forcibly tried to unfasten the front of her bra.

The woman said she went to police only after the boy returned from the three-day suspension imposed by Principal Joyce Dunn and threatened to get even with her daughter and the other girls.

"I am not irrational, I'm not an overprotective mother," the woman said yesterday. "I attended that school, my father went to that school, and there is no way that my child should have to go back and face that boy every day. They have to assure my daughter's safety. Three days is not enough, and he should not be allowed back next year."

Police say their investigation could not confirm that the boy had forcibly held the girl.

"Our investigation found that he attempted to do that, but that all contact made was from the back; the girl was not restrained," said Deputy Lt. Gary Baker. "Despite the ages involved, we handled this with the same standard of probable cause as any other complaint. We have plenty of assaults in the schools, but rarely at this age."

Marva Green, the county's juvenile justice chief, refused to discuss specifics of the case but said a hearing before a juvenile master would determine whether criminal charges would be pursued. She said the matter could end there or lead to informal supervision of the boy or charges.

"We have a climate in this country where parents take these things seriously," Green said. "We have criminal charges filed, and we have to react accordingly."

Followed guidelines

Wicomico schools Superintendent William T. Middleton said that school principal Dunn -- who could not be reached to comment yesterday -- followed the school system's guidelines for disciplining students in incidents that occur outside school or under the supervision other others -- in this case, county parks officials.

"If there is a question of whether we overreacted, I believe the principal acted within our guidelines," Middleton said. "The court ruling may heighten awareness, but we have always been very direct in dealing with matters such as this. This is a small community, and I think there's concern because of that."

Several parents complained yesterday because the boy has been allowed to attend the Pittsville school even though he lives in another neighborhood school district in the Delmar area north of Salisbury. Middleton said decisions on allowing students to attend schools outside their home districts next year will not be made until midsummer.

Last year, he said, 900 of Wicomico's approximately 7,000 students were permitted such arrangements, mostly to accommodate working parents.

Pub Date: 5/28/99

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