A call for reform

May 21, 2007

Somerset County school officials insist that the arrests of 15 students at Crisfield High School in recent months were justified. Some incidents have been challenged by parents as excessive and have been brought to the attention of the Maryland attorney general's office and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Although none of the arrests has yet been found to be improper, they point to a breakdown in school disciplinary practices and the need for broader school-community efforts to provide supports for students.

Many school districts in Maryland and across the nation use police officers inside school buildings. Ideally, their presence helps keep order and they are readily available if a violent situation erupts. But they are supposed to work closely with school administrators and make distinctions between criminal and student code violations. In cases of alleged criminal activity, Maryland law does not prohibit in-school arrests, but they are typically discouraged as a matter of good education policy.

Somerset school officials maintain that the arrests at the high school, many carried out by a police officer who has since left the system, were appropriate. But that's not persuasive when most of the charges were for infractions such as disorderly conduct, smoking and failure to obey orders.

In addition, seven of the students arrested were 14-year-olds, one was 13 and the rest were ages 15 to 17. In one incident, a 14-year-old girl was taken in handcuffs to the principal's office when a school administrator could not be found immediately and the girl reacted with hostility to the officer.

In that case, neither the NAACP nor the state attorney general's Office for Civil Rights has found a reason to challenge the arrest. But the school system has rightly concluded that it's not off the hook.

School administrators are being brought in more quickly to deal with disciplinary incidents, and students are learning how to obey the rules. Community leaders are also pulling parents together in focus groups to help deal with family and social issues that impede student performance. A renewed school-parent partnership can take these incidents as a starting point for reform - and obviously should.

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