Improving communication about juvenile offenders

Bill would open information to schools in anti-gang battle

February 17, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

A youngster is found delinquent - juvenile justice system parlance for guilty - for spray painting gang symbols on a wall. A police officer tells the principal that the youth could be headed for more trouble and warrants close watching.

Seems like the prudent thing to do.

But in Maryland, that exchange is against the law, a violation of secrecy rules governing juvenile proceedings in criminal courts.

A top lawmaker in Annapolis, outraged that parents in Anne Arundel County didn't know gangs were active in their schools until a 14-year-old boy was killed last year in Crofton, is trying to undo those restrictions, hoping to create a better system of communications to combat gang activity.

The limits on who can talk about juvenile crimes, and when, has long frustrated school officials and police. Legislation filed Tuesday by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat, would expand the types of cases that can be openly discussed.

Under current law, authorities can divulge information about juveniles who commit violent crimes that occur on school property or involve school activities.

Busch's bill would allow police to inform principals or other officials of student involvement in so-called "secondary offenses," such as assault and destruction of property away from school.

"When a kid is having these kinds of problems in the juvenile justice system, it's usually a flag that something is going on," Busch said in an interview. "You've got to share information."

The proposed legislation picked up key support from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat representing Calvert and Prince George's counties, who said on Tuesday that he expects his chamber to adopt the proposal. "Information-sharing," he said, "will solve a lot of crimes."

Busch said that details on individual students could remain confidential between police and school representatives, such as the principal, and would give administrators the tools they need to deal with potential problems and to inform parents in a general way of what's going on in their schools.

But some advocates worry that the information could be used to expel or discipline students instead of giving them help.

Margaret Mead, a Baltimore defense lawyer who represents many teens charged with juvenile crimes, said the danger is not in sharing information, "but in how it is used, and abused." She worries that principals, instead of trying to help problem students, would use the once-secret information to expel and to punish.

"I worry so much about labeling kids or putting them into a gang affiliation," Mead said, noting that juvenile gangs have existed for decades. "Everybody wants to belong to a group and now it's a hot political topic, and I think some kids are being mislabeled.

"There is a lot of juvenile activity that is never made a matter of public record and in many ways doesn't impact schools or school activities," Mead said. "I have one juvenile now who is alleged to have sexually assaulted a sibling. It's not appropriate that the school would label this kid based on that infraction and have him suffer the consequences of being kicked out of school."

Barbara A. Babb, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and director of the Center for Families, Children and the Courts, supports the legislation as a way to get her clients help. Her group runs a truancy court in seven Baltimore elementary/middle schools and one high school, using volunteer mentors and others to keep kids in class.

She works closely with state juvenile officials, especially at Patterson High, and said "there can be value in information sharing, but only if the goal is to rehabilitate."

Gang membership and bullying "is a tremendous problem, and it is a tremendous reason keeping kids away from school," Babb said. The more information on a youth's background, the former defense attorney said, the better her group can help.

"But you have got to keep in mind that we have lost the true focus of what our juvenile system is supposed to be," Babb said. "It is not about punishment. It is about what we can do to help juveniles. I think we fall well short of that."

Jason Hartling, principal of Baltimore's Northwestern High School in Park Heights, said the more information he has about students, "the better I can support them with counseling, get them help and keep a general eye on what is happening in the school."

He said using the new information to discipline children "is a valid concern," but he stressed that most administrators "are working for the best interest of the kids."

Parents, Hartling said, already expect that principals know all about their students, even if the law doesn't allow it. The May 2009 fatal beating of Christopher Jones in Crofton, and the subsequent retaliatory firebombing that targeted the wrong house and convictions of teens in juvenile and adult courts, raised fears about gangs infiltrating schools in the suburbs.

In the Crofton case, parents complained that they had never heard of the youth gangs called the East Side Diamonds and their rivals, The New Threat, before Christopher was beaten as he was riding a bicycle on Nantucket Drive near his home.

That public outcry revealed a communication gap that went both ways - police to school and school to police. At a hearing last year, Anne Arundel County Police Chief James Teare complained that the school system did not - because, officials argued, they could not legally - inform his school liaison officer that Christopher Jones had been bullied and that his parents had switched schools to help him escape.

"There was no communication," Teare said. "The Police Department was not made aware of why Christopher Jones left the school."

Said House Speaker Busch: "The young man's parents worried that the continued harassment would follow him, which it did."

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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