Saying the Naval Academy should be grooming future officers, not rehabilitating teens, some alumni are angry about the academy's acceptance of an 18-year-old from Massachusetts who recently had a run-in with police there.
High school graduate Asa Jearld faced felony charges last month after police said he led them on a car chase, fled on foot from an officer, and later attempted to file a false report claiming that his car had been stolen.
Jearld, a highly regarded student who was senior class vice president and salutatorian at his Falmouth, Mass., high school, started school last week at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Rhode Island, where he will spend the next year before joining the class of 2005 at the academy.
But late last month, the academy temporarily held Jearld's acceptance letter when school officials learned that he had been arrested on charges including fleeing a police officer and assault with intent to murder.
Charges against Jerald were dropped during the first week of this month when Cape Cod First Assistant District Attorney Michael O'Keefe learned that Jearld was a strong candidate for academy admittance. O'Keefe said yesterday that if the academy had decided not to accept Jearld, then the charges would have been reinstated.
Naval Academy officials said they decided to accept him because the charges were dropped.
"I've probably sent 60 kids to the military in the past 20 years, and nobody has ever complained," O'Keefe said. "[Defendants] have routinely been allowed to go into the military in lieu of being prosecuted for minor charges."
This is the first time he remembers sending one to a service academy.
Entering the Naval Academy under such circumstances, "sends the wrong message," said Michael T. Corgan, a North Falmouth resident and member of the academy's Class of 1963.
"There should be a higher standard," he said. "Everybody makes mistakes, and for all I know he's a good kid, but owning up to something when you do something wrong should be a reflexive response [for future officers], and it doesn't seem he has done that."
By all accounts, Jearld was an impressive candidate, although his academic record was not strong enough to win him a spot in this year's freshman class. O'Keefe said that even if the charges had been brought to court, Jearld's academic record and his extensive community involvement most likely would have persuaded a judge to dismiss the charges.
David A. Vetter, dean of admissions at the academy, said that after the incident, he received 29 pages of recommendations from people in Jearld's community, including his principal, church minister and employers, attesting to his good character and urging Vetter to admit the teen.
But he also received a barrage of phone calls from alumni questioning the school's decision and arguing that Jearld should spend a year in the services proving himself first, he said. Vetter believes that is what being at the preparatory school will help Jearld do.
Some alumni say that isn't good enough - that the prestigious academy or even the preparatory school shouldn't be viewed as a center for teens in trouble. Each student's education costs taxpayers more than $200,000.
Corgan said that Jearld should get a second chance, but not at the academy or prep school until he's proven himself. He called the academy's decision to admit him a "serious mistake."
Michael Field, who graduated in 1966, said Jearld should get the chance to prove himself at the prep school, but calls the idea of sending someone to the school or the academy in lieu of prosecution "ludicrous."
"As a graduate and a career military officer, that is offensive to me," Field said. "Kids that get sent by a judge to the military go to boot camp. You don't get to [train to] be an officer. The service academies are not built for that."
`He just panicked'
Jearld's run-in with the law began at an outdoor party near a local pond the night of June 6. Jearld, said his lawyer, John Connolly, had been at the party for a few minutes when police arrived and began stopping cars and fleeing teens to check IDs and sobriety. Jearld and another teen left in the white Jeep that Jearld was driving.
"He just panicked and took off," Connolly said. "He knows it was a dumb thing to do."
According to the police report, a Falmouth police officer pursued him, lights flashing, off roads, into the woods and eventually through a local nursery, where the car hopped a small stone wall into a neighbor's yard, "narrowly missing a parked vehicle and house."
Falmouth police Sgt. John Bettencourt said when the vehicle became lodged between two trees, the pursuing officer drew his gun and approached the jeep, yelling at Jearld to put his hands on his head. At that point, Bettencourt says, the Jeep jerked into reverse and nearly hit the officer.
The report says the two made eye contact; Jearld's lawyer said his client never saw the officer.