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.
"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. ... The police are listening to the parents crying out for help."
Herlth doesn't think the fighting was organized, though others described a group of boys strutting as if in a gang. "It's nothing but a bunch of kids running the streets," he said. "They do pretty much what they want, and when they want to do it."
Relatives of the children who police said were victimized in the playground fight could not be reached for comment. Police limited the information released on the incident because juveniles are involved. A redacted police report gives the following account of the altercation on March 20:
Officers responded about 6:30 p.m. to the 1900 block of Harmon Ave., where parents said three of their children had been violently attacked. Police said the children were playing in a park off Tolley Street and another group approached, armed with sticks.
"During the assault, one of the suspects grabbed the victim and attempted to drown him by putting his head into a lake," the police report says, referring to a small pond. "Another victim was scraped across train tracks and eventually the victims were able to get away."
Police said that the victims had scrapes and bruises, and one had facial cuts from the railroad track. All the children — victims and suspects — attend Morrell Park Elementary School.
Vogel said his granddaughter's group was retaliating for an attack earlier this month in which they were beaten with sticks while playing on the swings. "She told me the boys were looking for all the girls," Vogel said.
He said the girls then went after the boys. Vogel said police told him that one of the girls pressed the head of a boy to the railroad track and said, "If you tell anybody, we will kill you."
Vogel said his 9-year-old granddaughter told him that her friends were the main aggressors and that she stood on the periphery. He said that after police came to investigate March 20, he talked to the victims' parents.
"I thought it was all forgotten about," Vogel said.
The 9-year-old girl's mother spent Friday in a juvenile courtroom, her daughter and the others not allowed back in school. She described her daughter as "a follower" who was scared about the situation. The mother also said her daughter told her that she doesn't know anything about putting a child's head in the water or on a train rail.
The Baltimore Sun is not naming the mother to protect the identity of the child; the newspaper does not typically name juveniles charged with crimes.
"She doesn't know what's going on," the mother said. "I told her, 'This is serious. This is not a teacher holding you after school.'"
Baltimore Sun reporter Erica L. Green contributed to this article.
State regulations on arrests in schools
A. When possible and appropriate, arrest by police should be made during non-school hours and away from the school premises.
B. When an arrest on school premises during the school hours is necessary, the responsible school official shall ascertain the facts from the arresting officer, which will enable the school official to fully advise the parent or guardians and other school officials of the nature of the charge, the identity of the arresting officer, and the location of the student.
C. When an arrest has taken place on school premises or during school hours, every effort shall be made by school officials to inform the parent or guardians immediately and thereafter promptly to advise the local superintendent of schools.
D. Arrest on school premises during school hours shall be effectuated in such a manner as to avoid both embarrassment to the student being arrested and jeopardizing the safety and welfare of other students.
E. School officials may not permit questioning of a student under arrest on the school premises and shall request the arresting officer to remove the student from the premises as soon as practicable after the arrest is made.
Source: Code of Maryland Regulations