Gang prevention

Our view: Legislation being considered in Annapolis would foster greater information sharing to help schools intervene with at-risk kids before they get into real trouble

March 05, 2010

The death last year of Christopher Jones, the 14-year-old who was bullied, harassed and beaten to death by members of a gang he refused to join, has brought urgency to efforts in Annapolis to address a problem that is no longer the exclusive concern of big-city law enforcement. Christopher wasn't walking past some urban drug corner but was riding his bike on a May afternoon in Crofton when he was attacked and killed. Education and law enforcement officials say gangs are now spreading rapidly through the state's suburban jurisdictions and are increasingly finding recruits in high schools and even middle schools.

Most of the legislation that's been proposed this year to crack down on gangs attempts to deal with the problem as one of law enforcement and prosecution. State's attorneys, led by Baltimore's Patricia C. Jessamy, are pushing for measures to strengthen a three-year-old gang prosecution law they say is so vague that it has proven useless. Their approach has merit, but it only deals with gang-related crime and violence after the fact. Better than stronger laws to prosecute people like Christopher Jones' killers would be tools to prevent kids like him from having to deal with gangs in schools in the first place.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch is proposing legislation that has the potential to be just that. His bill would institutionalize communication between schools, the police, the Department of Human Resources and the Department of Juvenile Services at the first signs that kids might be getting in trouble. The bill expands the list of crimes that courts must report to schools to include lower offenses - malicious destruction of property and second-degree assault - that can be indicators of gang activity.

It requires school officials to consider the psychological and physical well-being of a victim of bullying or other abuse when deciding whether to assign him or her to attend the same school or ride the same bus as the aggressor. It requires every middle and high school to designate a point person for safety issues and requires all school districts to devise policies to deal with gangs or gang-like activities.

The idea, Delegate Busch says, is that if more people have information about signs of problems in a kid's life, the greater the chances are for them to intervene before he or she gets into serious trouble.

However, one part of the bill has drawn opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union, the state public defender's office and other advocates. They oppose a provision that would require courts to notify schools any time they place a child under the supervision or custody of the Department of Human Resources or the Department of Juvenile Services. The idea, Delegate Busch says, is that schools should be aware of such a significant change in the child's life. The bill also then requires schools to tell the supervising agency if the student has become habitually truant. This kind of information sharing is now optional and, according to Mr. Busch's office, happens sporadically at best.

The advocates who question this provision say the bill doesn't clearly specify what the schools should do with that information, and they worry that it will be used as a reason to suspend, expel or otherwise punish the student - which they say has already happened in some cases when the courts did share that information. The advocates fear that the children could be stigmatized, shamed or humiliated in cases when their offenses had nothing to do with gangs.

Their proposed solution is to throw out that section of the bill entirely, but its purpose is to provide support and assistance to troubled kids, not to punish them. If necessary, lawmakers could incorporate more safeguards into that section of the bill, but they should not ignore the very real good that can be accomplished if sharing that information leads to a holistic effort to steer children away from a troubled path.

Readers respond
Will this information be released to the parents? It should be.

Parents deserve full disclosure of their children's activities and behavior at school.

Being legally responsible for one until he or she turns 18 gives a parent the right for full disclosure.

Jay

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