Seeking to end a spate of playground disputes that authorities said escalated well past a typical fracas, Baltimore police officers went into an elementary school this week and took four children out in handcuffs.
But news of three 9-year-old girls and an 8-year-old boy shackled Thursday afternoon inside Morrell Park Elementary School — and then held for nearly 12 hours in a juvenile detention center nicknamed "Baby Booking"— has riled relatives and raised questions about whether the arrests were proper under state law.
"There was no need to handcuff children," Michael Vogel, the grandfather of one of the girls who was arrested, said Friday. "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."
Baltimore police defended their actions at the Southwest Baltimore school, noting the seriousness of the aggravated-assault charges. They said one child held another child's head underwater in a pond, and another forced a boy's head onto a railroad track and, according to a parent, threatened to kill him if he tattled.
"We handled the detentions as we would any felony suspect," said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "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."
Police said suspects in all cases are handcuffed, to keep officers safe and to prevent people in custody from harming themselves. Police said the assaults occurred in a park near the school, but after classes had ended.
State regulations limit the authority of police on school grounds, requiring immediate notification of parents and forbidding interrogations in the school. The regulations say: "When possible and appropriate, arrest by police should be made during non-school hours and away from the school premises."
Police arrested the children for an altercation they said occurred nine days earlier. Parents and others 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," she said. "What universe is that?"
Vogel, 60, who baby-sits his young granddaughter while her mother works, said the girl's friends were retaliating for being beaten with sticks while playing on the swings. Community leaders said the scrap was part of a series of fights that have recently troubled Morrell Park, a rectangular-shaped community bordering Interstate 95 and the Baltimore County line.
Vogel said city police, not school administrators, notified him about three hours after the arrests. He said that a juvenile judge set a May 1 court date for the case and that the arrested students can return to school as soon as spring break ends on April 11.
City school officials declined to comment beyond a one-sentence statement: "At this time, the Morrell Park incident is under review by the district."
The case recalls the 2007 arrest of 7-year-old Gerard Mungo Jr., who was handcuffed after police found him sitting on an illegal dirt bike in front of his house in East Baltimore. The mayor and police commissioner apologized, but a jury rejected the family's civil suit, even though a judge ruled the arrest illegal.
Police said Friday that the Morrell Park incident differs in many ways, and Guglielmi said the children's actions 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 leaders in Morrell Park, is that children in the community are out of control and fighting is so rampant that police have twice led anti-bullying seminars at 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 — an incident unrelated to the elementary school fight.
"We've had conferences ongoing with kids," Roberts said.
Steve Herlth, who leads community safety walks in Morrell Park and other Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods, said he's aware of two serious fights that occurred about two weeks ago. One was the fight that police said led to Thursday's arrests.