Political debate of juvenile system should start with the second grade


THE LITTLE GUY sticks his head outside the principal's office door and glances down the hall, as though looking out for the cops. Joanne Blackmore spots him. The little guy's a first-grader here at Wellwood International Elementary School, on Smith Avenue in northwest Baltimore County. Blackmore's the vice principal. For the little guy, this could be considered worse than any cops.

"Yes?" Blackmore says.

The little guy glances up and up. Blackmore, towering over him, does not cash in on her size advantage. She does not attempt to intimidate the kid. Her voice is instead a velvet caress, a verbal twinkle of the eye.

"Room eight," the boy mutters. "My class."

"I know," Blackmore says. "Sit down, and we'll take you there soon."

The little guy sits back down and runs a small hand through his brown floppy hair.

"Trouble?" Blackmore is asked.

"A little restless," she says. "He's just here to calm down a bit."

She smiles gratefully. At Wellwood Elementary, this is generally considered about as bad as it gets. Children skip happily around a sunlit gymnasium across the hall from Blackmore. Their voices seem to sing. The school has "international" in its name because of its mix of pupils: more than 500 kids with backgrounds in roughly 40 different nations. Many are the children of Johns Hopkins employees who live nearby. About 20 percent of them speak English as a second language. This is the American mixing bowl in its tangiest flavor.

So naturally, I'm here to ask about trouble.

"Second-graders," I say to Blackmore.

Earlier in the week, I'd been talking to Nancy Grasmick, the state school superintendent. She'd mentioned late-night trips she sometimes made to the Charles Hickey school for juvenile offenders, in the Cub Hill area of Baltimore County.

"I'd go out there late at night," Grasmick said. "I wanted to talk to kids who'd been put in solitary confinement. I'd say to them, 'Why are you here?' And I kept getting the same two answers. They'd say they didn't have anybody they could turn to. And they kept talking about the second grade. By the second grade, they said, they'd figured out that their lives weren't working out. That's when they started acting out."

Now, in this sunny hallway at Wellwood Elementary, Blackmore glanced protectively toward the restless little guy waiting to return to class.

"Seven or 8 years old," she said softly. "That's when the psyche begins to change for them. They see what's going on around them, and they begin comparing their lives with the other kids."

When the afternoon bell rings at Wellwood, the scene becomes a mass embrace: all these mothers waiting outside, all these hugs, all these children who cannot doubt for a moment how adored they are.

This took me back to Grasmick, and to Bishop Robinson, secretary of the state's Department of Juvenile Justice. Over breakfast the other day, at Iggy's Restaurant, Eastern Avenue in Little Italy, Robinson was talking about the parents of the troubled kids who come through his system.

"Fifteen percent of them," he said, "the parents tell us, 'Just take the kid off our hands. We don't want him anymore. Take him.' Another 50 percent of them, they tell us, 'We don't know what to do. We've tried everything.' Which is almost the same thing."

Most of these kids have reached their teens by the time they hit juvenile justice. By then, they're long past Nancy Grasmick's second-grade realizations, long past realizing they have no one to turn to, long past the hour of knowing that the odds are stacked against them.

A few months back, Grasmick was talked about as a possible running mate for Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich Jr. He intends to make juvenile justice an issue. In her time as lieutenant governor, the Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has had direct oversight of the juvenile system. She will have to defend the mess.

But the candidates will do everyone a favor if they take us beyond the obvious. We know there are troubled kids flooding the system. We know about the juvenile boot camps where brutal officers beat kids and such outrages never seemed to reach anybody in authority.

The debate should take us further. It should take us to the homes where such children are shunted aside; to parents utterly unequipped to deal with psychological nuance; to crowded schools where teachers attempt academic instruction while the former crack baby in the third row acts out uncontrollably and disrupts an entire room; to first-graders playing on city sidewalks late on school nights while parents look the other way; to all those who reach second grade and realize their lives are not going to work out.

And then they can tell us how they would take such children, and begin to move their lives away from late-night solitary confinement cells, and boot camps, and parents unable to cope, to a sunlit place like Wellwood Elementary, where children of every background feel the tender embrace of loving adults.

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