Student safety worries raised

Teens attack athlete during practice run in Owen Brown


October 29, 2001|By Megan Watzin | Megan Watzin,SUN STAFF

When Jason Forrest, a senior on the Oakland Mills High School cross country team, joined his teammates in a practice run last week, he didn't expect it to end with him sprawled on a sidewalk, his head ringing from a sharp blow.

Jason, 17, said he was running on Cradlerock Way toward Broken Land Parkway on Oct. 22 when most of the team, including coach Phil Lang, pulled ahead. Alone, he was passing a group of five to seven teen-agers standing on the grass when one of the group ran toward him and knocked him off his feet with an elbow to the face.

As Jason lay on the ground, he said, the teen-agers gathered around him, congratulated the youth who struck him and warned Jason that he "better get the hell out" or he would be attacked again. Still groggy, he fled.

The incident, which happened at 5:30 p.m. across from the Columbia branch library in the Village of Owen Brown, has raised basic safety questions.

"Of all the areas that an incident could occur, this is a place you would not expect," Lang said. "Jason's incident was very unexpected."

Lang and the team's other coaches have spoken with the administration at Oakland Mills High School, and school officials are working with Oakland Mills' police liaison to gather information about the attack.

Authorities said they have no leads in the case.

It is too early in the investigation to draw conclusions, police said. A follow-up report on the incident will be filed next week.

Other threats this year

The attack is not the first time this season a cross country runner has been harassed in the area.

Members of the Oakland Mills team were cursed and threatened several times by groups of teen-agers near Jackson Pond, off Tamar Drive, earlier in the season. Those episodes persuaded Lang to shift the four-mile run away from the pond and closer to the main road.

Lang said he does not believe the incidents are related.

"These kids are out there trying to better themselves and to get in shape. It's a shame that they have to worry about being harassed, whether it be verbal or physical," Lang said. "Part of the reason I live in Columbia is the bike paths, and now we are hesitant to use some of those because we are concerned about safety.

"The whole team was concerned. I don't think that they were afraid, but were more angry that someone on their team had gotten hurt."

The coach said that he thinks the incident was random and that even though members of the team are "going to be nervous, the route won't be taken off the list because it's one of our best - and usually safest - runs."

If another incident should occur in the area, coach Vicky Lang said, the team would avoid the route altogether. If a runner were attacked in a different area, the coaches would likely hold a meeting with the coaches, the principals and the parents to decide what to do, she said.

Letter sent to parents

After the attack on Jason, the coaches of the Oakland Mills team sent a letter to athletes and their parents explaining what happened and what safety precautions were being taken for the team.

Phil Lang said members of high school cross country teams throughout the area are strongly encouraged to run with a partner for safety.

"We do not require a kid to stay with another kid, but the buddy system has been stressed for many years," Phil Lang said.

Lang and the other coaches often tell the team members that, whether they are with a group or not, they should avoid any situation that is uncomfortable for them.

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