High-schoolers' helmet bill falls short by just one vote

Youths maintain need for skating safety

February 26, 2000|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

A group of Baltimore County private school students received a disappointing civics lesson yesterday when an in-line skating helmet restriction they fought for died in a Senate committee because one senator failed to show for the vote.

The high school students from Reisterstown's Hannah More School came to Annapolis this session to lobby for a bill requiring in-line skaters younger than 16 to wear helmets. They made the issue a crusade after their friend, Casey Athman, was killed two years ago while skating without a helmet.

The students believed they had the required six votes on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to send the bill to the full Senate for a vote. But they learned that in politics, a vote is never assured until it is cast.

When the committee voted on the bill yesterday morning, one of the six votes -- Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV of Baltimore -- showed up too late. The bill received a 5-4 majority, but it failed because the committee has a minimum six-vote rule.

Mitchell had indicated that he intended to support the measure.

"It should have passed. It doesn't make any sense," said Michael Hilton, 17, a senior. "It just kind of reinforces what I already knew. Politics is pretty corrupt."

"The whole thing was a travesty," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the legislation. "[The students] were optimistic that by doing all the right things, their hard work and good attitude would pay off. But that wasn't the case."

Hollinger said she never received an explanation from Mitchell about why he couldn't make it on time for the vote. "Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances that explain why Sen. Mitchell was late," she said.

Mitchell could not be reached to comment yesterday afternoon.

Paul Kaplan, a Hannah More official who worked with the youngsters, said he and some of the students were more disappointed that another senator. Carroll Republican Sen. Larry E. Haines, who represents the district where Casey Athman lived, voted against the bill.

"We were pursuing his vote vigorously, and we did not get it," Kaplan said. "We're confused and disturbed about that."

The Judicial Proceedings Committee is widely considered one of the most conservative committees in the General Assembly.

Haines is one of four conservative Republicans on the committee who often vote against bills expanding government's reach.

"We keep getting legislation in all the time regarding what should be parental responsibility, and we can't put legislation in to take care of all the parental responsibility problems," Haines said yesterday afternoon. "Maybe I'll look at it next year, but I don't really think there's a need for it."

Hilton said that even though he is graduating, he plans to return next year with the other students to try again.

"I don't want to say it, but if it takes some other kid getting killed for some of these people to realize it, that would [stink]," Hilton said. "But it seems that's what [it will] take before some of the other senators on the committee change their minds."

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