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Rodricks: Failure in the city, death in the county

The horrors come at a sickening pace — opioid overdoses, mass shootings, school shootings, street shootings — and the latest (or maybe not, by the time you read this) on a suburban Baltimore cul-de-sac: a police officer struck and killed on a weekday afternoon by a Jeep allegedly driven by a 16-year-old boy from West Baltimore.

The teenager and three other suspects, all juveniles, ran off and prompted a manhunt that led to an hours-long lockdown of nearby schools, with nearly 2,000 children inside.

Parents who might have wanted to break the news gently to their kids — that their country is big and powerful, but also ugly and violent — found themselves suddenly having to explain police dogs and helicopters. It’s hard to imagine a sadder tableau than elementary school kids sheltering in place, and parents suddenly unable to spare them the bad news.

And there’s another striking image from our latest community horror: the police mug shot of the skinny kid from Gilmor Homes, accused of murder.

Anyone familiar with the streets of Baltimore has seen a teenage boy in late morning on a sidewalk somewhere, either taking his time getting to school or headed nowhere near it. I have been tempted hundreds of times to roll down the window of my car and ask, “Young man, aren’t you supposed to be in school?”

But I resist. I am not the boy’s parent. I am not an authorized truant officer. And besides, I do not know the boy’s life and the challenges he might face. I do not make assumptions. I am not about to step onto the sidewalk and admonish the boy to get home or get to school.

It might take a whole village to raise a child, but drive-by scoldings, shouted through a car window, do not fit the spirit of that proverb.

I saw three boys last week while I was stopped for the traffic light on The Alameda near Harford Road, on the northeast side of the city. If the boys were walking in the direction of the school on the Lake Clifton campus, they did so with little conviction. It was close to 10 a.m.

I did not roll down the window and ask what they were doing. I did not lecture them about being late for class. I did not warn them about how skipping school could lead to lives of failure.

Not my business.

But, daunting as it might seem, it should be the public’s business.

Anyone who looks at the initial facts in the death of a brave Baltimore County police officer, Amy Caprio, must wonder about the four teenage boys arrested in connection with it.

At least one of them — the alleged driver of the vehicle that struck the officer — was from West Baltimore. What were he and his alleged accomplices doing in Perry Hall, about 20 miles away, in the middle of a weekday? Were all of them still enrolled in the Baltimore schools? If so — and even if not — did their parents or guardians know where they were, and what they were doing?

If not, shouldn’t that responsibility fall somewhere, at least while the boys are still minors, and especially if they have established records of offenses as juveniles, as the alleged driver does?

It seems like a big, impossible task: to have a daily accounting and door-knock for every child who does not show up for school by the appointed time. (There are 38 high schools or combined middle school-high schools in the city, and the schools citywide had a chronic absence rate of 30 percent in 2017.)

But for boys considered at-risk — that is, at risk of committing a crime or at risk of being the victim of one — such a system should be a priority.

Just a few weeks ago, Ivan Bates, a criminal defense attorney who, along with Thiru Vignarajah, will challenge Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby in next month’s Democratic primary election, offered some ideas about this.

Bates said he wanted prosecutors who would be invested in juvenile court and not see the assignment merely as a first step to another, more prestigious post.

Prosecutors need to know the kids in the system and “how did they get here,” Bates said.

And juveniles who have committed offenses need to be watched closely, especially when they miss a day in school.

“Children skip school,” Bates said. “If they skip school, they might be down the [Inner Harbor], a group of them causing, potentially, some problems. Once that child skips school, the counselor at school can immediately send out an email to everybody — the agent, the court. The very next day we can have that young man, young lady in court. We can immediately place them on electronic monitoring, and we’re sitting there holding them accountable for their actions.”

Bates believes such a system, strictly enforced and monitored, will save lives.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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