Youngsters charged in playground assault have hearing shrouded in secrecy

May 02, 2012|By Peter Hermann

Three children — an 8-year-old boy and two 9-year-old girls — who police took out of their elementary school in handcuffs earlier this year had hearings before a juvenile judge on Tuesday. They had been charged with aggravated assault, accused of vicious playground attacks in Southwest Baltimore.

But while the allegations were well published, driven by the ages of the children and where they were arrested, at a school in Southwest Baltimore's Morrell Park, what is happening to them now is shrouded in the secrecy of the juvenile justice system.

Spectator, including reporters, were not allowed into the hearing, and parents who emerged said their attorneys had told them not to talk for 30 days. One mother said her 9-year-old girl had been cleared. She had given an interview after the incident to say her daughter was on the periphery, but did not participate in the assaults that included holding a boys head under water and forcing another boy's head onto railroad tracks.

The disposition of the other youths remains in question. The mother of the girl cleared said the juvenile master wants the parents on both sides to work toward some mediation, hence the 30 day window.

Reporters had no trouble sitting in on another juvenile proceeding on Tuesday -- the pleas entered by boys 13 and 12 in the killing of 13-year-old Monae Turnage. [Read story here]. That's because the charges they faced would be considered felonies in adult court, and that makes the proceeding presumed to be open, even in juvenile court.

The charges faced by the youngster from Morrell Park were felonies when police arrested them. A department spokesman even described the charges a heinous, in defending handcuffing them in the school's principal's office.

But the case no longer remains what's considered a felony, and thus the public doesn't get to see the outcome. The law opening up juvenile proceedings is welcome, and it was designed to allow a window into the most serious of cases.

Unfortunately, the Morrell Park case shows how the law falls short. Police arrested three elementary school children on charges they deem serious -- the police said they treated the youths as suspected felons -- only to see the case crumble and end up in counseling sessions instead of jail.

And the public will never know why.

Did the police mess up the case? Should they have arrested the children in the first place? Maybe the charges should have stuck? What did the judge say about how the children were treated? Or about the alleged attacks?

The allegations say as much about how the children behaved as it does the adults. It exposed a deep-rooted neighborhood dispute that community leaders say is as much about feuding adults as it is their children.

Authorities said one of the youths held another child’s head under water in a pond and another forced a boy’s head onto a railroad track and threatened to kill him. A relative of one of the accused girl’s said the trio was retaliating for being hit with sticks while using park swings.

The Maryland Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the arrests as counter to Maryland law, which requires immediate notification of parents and that officials seek alternative ways to take people that young into custody. The law mandates that officers make arrests in schools only as a last resort.

Neither representatives from the city school system or their police force, or city police, have addressed the concerns in detail. Meanwhile, community leaders in Morrell Park have complained that their neighborhood is out of control and children poorly disciplined.

The leaders describe a series of fights on and off the playground and cited alleged gang graffiti referring to a “killer hit squad,” but but have dismissed claims that any real gangs are at work in Morrell Park, at least involving children this young.

 

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