City schools send child trespassers away in handcuffs

Policy: A suspended girl, 12, afraid to walk home alone, returns to school and is jailed, joining seven other pupils in January alone.

March 02, 2000|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Everyone agrees the girl can be a problem.

She is disruptive in class and her explosive temper has gotten the best of her more than once in school. So when the girl, age 12, ran in and out of classrooms and around the halls of her city middle school, the administration acted swiftly and suspended her. They called her mother and told her they were sending her home.

But the girl was afraid to walk a mile home through the streets of Pimlico, a crime-ridden neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore. So, she sneaked back into her school, Dr. Roland Patterson Jr. Academy, and hid in a third-floor bathroom until she was found, arrested, handcuffed and taken by school police to a jail cell for juveniles.

When the girl was released from the Northern District police station, her mother said, "She was quiet. She was scared mostly. She said she never wanted to be there again. ... It got her shook up. It was dirty. It was cold and everything was in there together. There was no privacy or nothing."

A child in handcuffs, sent to jail for trespassing? It happened more than once in January, when the 12-year-old girl was arrested. That month alone, Baltimore school police arrested eight students at seven schools for trespassing. Most were students who had been suspended but showed up at school anyway, according to Leonard Hamm, chief of school police.

Often, the police officer will ask the children to leave school and they do, Hamm said. But in this case, the girl refused to leave and didn't explain why.

"I don't think they gave her a chance," said her mother. "What she told me, she heard about someone getting raped in that area." The girl and her mother are not being identified because The Sun does not identify juveniles arrested for crimes.

The mother, who has serious medical problems, was upset that her daughter spent four hours in a juvenile holding cell on Jan. 11. But she is resigned to the way the school treats children. "Up there, when they call you, they just send them home. They just tell you they are going to do it and they do it."

But the Rev. Victoria R. Sirota, vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Nativity, near the school on Pimlico Road, is not willing to let the matter rest. She has written to the school's principal, Gerry Mansfield, and to Robert Booker, the city schools chief, to express her outrage.

"We worry that this kind of traumatic experience may brand a child and make them feel that this is where they belong, especially in the eyes of their classmates who taunt each other mercilessly at that age," Sirota wrote.

Legal policy vs. psyche damage

At issue is not only the safety of a child sent home in the middle of the day, but the policy of handcuffing and arresting a 12-year-old.

Legally, Hamm said, the police must handcuff the children because they have been charged with a crime. That procedure is commonly followed by city police.

"My people will do everything we can do to keep from arresting someone because it does not make sense to us not to have children in school," Hamm said.

The vicar knows the girl through her church ministry, and baptized her. "She is bright. She is sharp. She is streetwise and she is hard to deal with, but we have come to love her. She is like an uncut diamond," Sirota said. "I see her as a leader, a teacher, a lawyer, an actress."

But the girl does not see herself that way at all. In fact, Sirota said, "These children have so much difficulty with self-esteem. They don't understand the gifts and talents they have been given. They have trouble loving themselves. Doing this is the worst thing you could do."

The school system defends the action of the principal. "I firmly believe that school administrators acted in accordance with school policy in having the student removed," said Vanessa Pyatt, a city school spokeswoman, speaking for Mansfield.

Pyatt said that once the girl returned to the school after being suspended, she was trespassing. She was asked to leave and didn't. "There is a history of disruptive behavior since the student arrived at Roland Patterson Academy," said Pyatt. The school system had tried several different approaches to disciplining her before, according to Pyatt, but she continued to be a behavioral problem. "She was clearly in violation of the student discipline code."

`Needs adults to dream for her'

The girl's mother said her daughter didn't want to go back to the school after her arrest.

When she did, Sirota said, her classmates ridiculed her for having been handcuffed.

The arrest apparently didn't improve her behavior. Instead, she was suspended again and then she slammed a door shut, catching a teacher in the door. She was put on long-term suspension and is now at home waiting for the school system to assign a tutor to teach her at home.

Sirota said she hopes the girl will be able to make it.

"I look at her and I see what she could become," Sirota said. "I don't think she knows how to see that. She needs adults to dream for her and to have expectations for her. She doesn't need a school system that discards her. The school system has failed her and it breaks my heart."

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