As police sift through the facts of last weekend's deadly brawl on a football field at a Howard County high school, one contributing factor has emerged: underage drinking.
Some of the participants in the fight, in which an 18-year-old was killed by a blow to the head with an aluminum baseball bat, appeared to be intoxicated. A party at a house near the football field was raided that night, and police issued 15 citations for underage drinking.
Experts say alcohol and youth violence often intersect, sometimes with tragic results. The brawl at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City, for example, appears to be the outgrowth of a continuing dispute and attracted dozens of youths to the field in the middle of the night.
"Usually, both drugs and alcohol will impair decision-making ability and make you make a decision that you would normally be able to stop yourself from doing," said Erin Artigiani, a deputy director at the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Research has shown that one of three murders tend to be alcohol-related." Police would not say whether the victim, Robert A. Brazell Jr. of Ellicott City, or Kevin F. Klink, the 18-year-old former wrestling champion from Columbia charged with first-degree murder in Brazell's death, were drinking that night. Police arrived at the scene about 12:30 a.m. Feb. 24, by which time most of the participants had fled.
Several friends say Brazell attended the house party that was raided and left before the police showed up.
Klink was charged in September with driving while impaired by alcohol, and a Howard County District Court judge sentenced him in November to probation before judgment. Laura Smit, executive director of HC DrugFree, a nonprofit Howard organization, said alcohol causes teens to make bad decisions.
"If you are drinking and get called to go to a fight, you are more likely to go than when you are sober," said Smit, who suspects alcohol played a role in the fight. "It doesn't make any sense that a kid who was trained in wrestling" would do this.
One of Klink's friends, who said he witnessed the altercation at Mount Hebron, said Klink, a graduate of Oakland Mills High, was coming to the aid of another youth who was fighting with Brazell.
The friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Klink and some friends went to the football field after "some kid ran his mouth off to him over the phone." He would not discuss whether Klink or others consumed alcohol before the fight.
Two 17-year-old students from Hammond High School in Columbia who are alleged to have been involved in the melee were injured and were treated at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
Confrontations among youth are not uncommon, but ones leading to death are, said Philip Leaf, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence.
Teachers often break up fights on school grounds and help students settle arguments, he said, or parents and other adults become involved when they hear that a fight is planned.
Other altercations end after a few blows.
Leaf said he had no specific information about the Howard County incident, but he noted that tensions can build among young people over various issues.
Several youths who knew Brazell say the fight at Mount Hebron was linked to an altercation near an apartment complex on Town and Country Boulevard in Ellicott City.
An Ellicott City mother, whose two sons were good friends with Brazell, said that the victim and her sons were called during Presidents Day weekend about the fight at the apartments. Neither Brazell nor her sons, who spent that weekend at her home, went, she said.
Four boys - a 14-year-old from Columbia, a 16-year-old from Hanover, a 16-year-old from Clarksville and a 17-year-old from Jessup - were arrested on second-degree assault charges at 1:45 a.m. Feb. 19 at Town and Country Boulevard near Rogers Avenue in Ellicott City, according to police. They are investigating a possible link between that fight and the one five days later at Mount Hebron.
"When young people get together, they build on these things if they are in an environment where there aren't other people, or don't feel there is some other person who could reconcile it or mediate what the disputes are," Leaf said.
Brazell's death affected students at Mount Hebron, where he had been enrolled until he withdrew in December.
David Brown, the principal at Mount Hebron, said that some students have sought help from members of the school system's crisis intervention team.
"There are some students who we are talking to because they have been identified as [being] close" to Brazell, Brown said Thursday. "The number [of students speaking to counselors] decreases every day."
Brown, who is in his first year as principal at Mount Hebron, said he did not know Brazell.
"It's tragic," he said. "We're going to see what we can do to prevent similar incidents in the future."
This is not the first time that alcohol has been linked to a death at Mount Hebron.
Police believe that alcohol and speed were factors in a single-car crash Feb. 17, 2006, that killed a student headed to the school's Beach Bash II dance and sent two others to the hospital. The school removed five students from the dance because they were believed to be drunk.
The car's driver, Theresa Rayburn, who was 17 at the time of the accident, later pleaded "involved" - the equivalent of guilty for a juvenile - to charges of homicide by motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol per se and driving under the influence.
"Teenage drinking is no greater or less at Mount Hebron" than at other schools, Brown said. "It is an issue that concerns parents and educators everywhere."
Smit said she recently conducted a focus group with Howard County teens and asked students why teens drink.
"No one had an answer," she said.
In the 2004 Maryland Adolescent Survey, 63 percent of state high school seniors acknowledged using alcohol during the previous year, compared with the national average of 70.6 percent. In Howard County, 64.9 percent of seniors said they drank within the past year.
"Not all teens are doing bad [things], said Smit, who was putting the finishing touches on her annual teen job fair. "The vast majority are doing the right thing."
Sun reporter Tyrone Richardson contributed to this article.