UPDATE: Seeking to end a spate of playground fights that authorities said escalated into a near drowning and a child’s head being forced onto a railroad track in Morrell Park, Baltimore police officers went into an elementary school Thursday and took four young children out in handcuffs.
But news of three 9-year-old girls and an 8-year-old boy shackled inside a school and then held in a juvenile detention center nicknamed “Baby Booking” for nearly 12 hours has riled some parents and raised questions about whether the arrests were proper under state law.
“There was no need to handcuff children,” said Michael Vogel, the grandfather of one of the girls who was arrested. “Wow, the cops did a big bust in Morrell Park. They locked up four little kids. I mean, good Lord, the parents should have been there.”
Vogel, 60, who babysits the young girl while her mother works, said his granddaughter’s friends were retaliating against previous attacks that have plagued this rectangular-shaped community in the far southwest corner of the city, split by Route 1 and bordering I-95 and the Baltimore County line.
He said city police, not school administrators, notified him about three hours after the arrests on charges of aggravated assault.
Baltimore police defended their actions. “We handled the detentions as we would any felony suspect,” department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. “I think what they did to the victims speaks for itself. We worked with the school administration to get them out of class. Once we brought them to the office, they were arrested.”
State regulations limit the authority of police on school grounds, requiring immediate notification of parents and forbidding interrogations in the school. The regulations also say: “When possible and appropriate, arrest by police should be made during non school hours and away from the school premises.”
Police in this case arrested the youths Thursday afternoon for an altercation they said occurred nine days earlier. Parents and other critics argue that officers could have detained the youths after the school day had ended -- and with much less fanfare.
“It’s virtually impossible to imagine a scenario where it is appropriate to take 8- and 9-year-olds out of a school in handcuffs,” said Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union who works with juvenile issues.
“The notion that this was treated like any other felony case is totally sickening,” Kumar said. “What universe is that?”
The case recalls the 2007 arrest of 7-year-old Gerard Mungo Jr., who was handcuffed after police found him sitting on a dirt bike in front of his house. The mayor and police commissioner apologized, but a jury rejected the family’s civil suit, even though a judge ruled the arrest illegal.
Police on Friday said the Morrell Park case differs in many ways, most notably because Gerard wasn’t committing any crime. Guglielmi, the city police spokesman, said the actions of the children in the most recent case went far beyond a schoolyard tussle.
“Shouldn't we be more concerned that three children were seriously assaulted than the location of the arrests?” Guglielmi said.
What is being missed in the debate over how the arrests were made, said two community leaders in Morrell Park, is that children in the community are out of control and fighting is so rampant that twice city police led anti-bullying seminars in the elementary school.
Wendy Roberts, president of the Morrell Park Community Association, said there have been "quite a few incidents, a lot of girl-on-girl fights.” She said one boy was hit in the head and ended up in the hospital with a bruised eye socket. “We’ve had conferences ongoing with kids,” the civic leader said.
Steve Herlth, who leads community police safety walks in Morrell Park and other Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods, said he’s aware of two recent, serious fights, both of which occurred about two weeks ago. One was the fight that police said led to Thursday's arrests.
“The police are trying to get a handle on all this,” Herlth said. “The parents have lost control of their children in this community. It’s a darn shame. I’m grateful that Baltimore police are taking this seriously. I’m glad they’re doing their jobs. The police are listening to the parents crying out for help.”