Spoiling for a fight

February 28, 2007

An 18-year-old is beaten to death with a baseball bat late at night on the grounds of a Howard County school with at least 20 youths present. That's the basic scenario of the weekend killing of Robert Brazell, the county's first murder of the year. Police say his death was not gang-related. That may be reassuring to some; several suburban Maryland counties have been preoccupied with gangs and the crime and violence they breed. But Mr. Brazell's killing is no less alarming because it's not gang-related. It was the tragic outcome of a brawl.

With that many youths out on a weekend night involved in deadly mischief, the question for parents has to be: Do you know where your children are?

As cliched as it sounds, the police account so far of the Brazell killing suggests that the young people who showed up behind the football field at Mount Hebron High School after midnight Friday were there for a reason: to settle a score.

It's not dissimilar to what led up to last year's shooting of 20-year-old Anthony James Owen-Smith, of Savage - a dispute over a basketball game escalated into a series of fights among dozens of teenagers outside a McDonald's on the night of June 23. A man who tried to break up one of the fights at the fast-food restaurant was pursued by some of the participants; he in turn shot and killed Mr. Owen-Smith, who was in the group.

In the Brazell case, police say the victim was hit in the head with an aluminum baseball bat and left on the football field. An 18-year-old former wrestling champ at Oakland Mills High School has been charged with murder.

It may be coincidental that two of the five killings in Howard County since January 2006 involved groups of youths deciding to settle a dispute with their fists - or worse. But too many young people were involved in these incidents for parents and school officials to dismiss them as schoolyard fights carried too far.

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