The principal of an Anne Arundel County middle school heard that members of the football team were forming a gang. He contacted the police liaison, who called the parents, and one mother discovered a questionable Web site and made her son take it down.
Authorities convened a meeting of parents, police, the principal and a student advocate. "The boys advised that they didn't form this group to cause problems," according to an Anne Arundel County police report. "Most of the parents were already familiar with the other boys and their parents and are communicating to keep an eye on their boys.
"The parents were appreciative of the information given, but not happy about their boys' involvement, and being labeled as gang members," the report says. In the end, police concluded there was "no evidence to suggest" the group "is involved in any type of gang activity."
Is this diligent police work that quickly identified a possible gang and stopped it in its tracks before someone got hurt? Or was this an unwarranted intrusion by law enforcement, which now has a file on a group of kids naming them as possible gang members? The report was heavily redacted, including sections describing the group and the Web site.
Educators and police across Maryland are debating just what kind of information can be shared under privacy laws to ensure that the rights of individuals are protected, while also ensuring that other students can safely go to school. There seems no doubt that a principal can talk to officers about immediate threats, but it's less clear in situations like the one described in Anne Arundel.
Police agencies have gotten into trouble for monitoring peaceful, benign groups; the Maryland State Police apologized after it was revealed that troopers infiltrated and compiled files on peaceful protest groups and political activists under the guise of terrorism investigations.
But with gangs, prosecutors are pushing for heavier penalties and more leeway in punishing members. After a shooting this summer inside an Inner Harbor pavilion, Baltimore's police commissioner lamented that his officers didn't confront youths parading in gang colors before the gunfire erupted. And after the May death of 14-year-old Christopher Jones in Crofton - linked to a dispute involving gang members in Anne Arundel County - parents complained that police and school officials hid evidence that gangs were active in their community.
Anne Arundel Police Lt. J.D. Batten, commander of the school safety unit, said police and school officials are too often hamstrung by laws that prohibit them from talking to each other about children.
If police break up a fight that began at school but occurred off-campus, Batten's officers can't tell the principal because of a state law about disclosing police matters. And the principal can't tell Batten's officers about the students because of federal privacy laws.
"Wouldn't it be nice to go into this school and ask the principal, 'Is there anything you know about this scenario?' " Batten said. The problem, he explained, "is that different people know different parts of the puzzle," and he said authorities could more quickly intervene if "people could just talk among themselves."
In the report involving the Arundel football team, Batten said an investigation was made easier because an officer is assigned to the school, allowing for a smooth exchange of information. "Are police taking things too far because we investigated this?" the lieutenant said. "No. We got a report. We investigated thoroughly. Our job is to look into complaints and bring the parents in. 'Here's the info we have, and what do you know about this?' "
Batten said he's frustrated that warning signs - obvious ones, such as kids on Facebook flashing gang colors, and less obvious ones, such as a kid getting bullied and staying silent - too often are missed or remain hidden until it's too late.
"We're not looking to arrest kids," Batten said. "We're looking to get active long before we're getting into arrests and long before we get into gang activity. Some parents don't like it all that we're even saying that these are the concerns. But so many times after a critical incident, parents say, 'We had no idea. Nobody told us.' "