The Safe Schools Act: How far is too far?
By: Cheryl Chado
Imagine the following situation: Dave is walking home from baseball practice and out of sheer boredom, takes a swing at a neighbor’s mailbox. The neighbor, who happens to be looking out the window, sees him and calls the police. Dave is arrested for malicious destruction of property.
Consider Bryan, a child with Asperger’s Syndrome. While at the movies one day, he runs into a classmate from school. The classmate, known as a bully, picks a fight and Bryan tries to protect himself. The theater manager calls the police. When they arrive, the bully has a more convincing story so he gets let off with a warning. Bryan appears to be uncooperative, so he is arrested for second-degree assault…
These are fairly commonplace incidents – you hear about them all the time. What you might not know is that within the following 24 hours, these arrests will be reported to Dave and Bryan’s local school superintendent, principal and security officer. The reported changes will be held in their record until they graduate from high school or turn 21. Even if the charges are later dropped, the result is the same.
But what measures, if any, will be put in place to keep the school system in check? For example, in the case of a sexual assault between two students at the same school, the perpetrator is not allowed to attend the same school or even ride the same bus. Though the perpetrator will be “placed” in a new school, not expelled, who’s to say that student will not be treated differently in his/her new school. And what about Bryan, who has Asperger’s Syndrome? Will he be treated differently under his Individualized Education Plan because of his brush with the law?
As of July 1, 2010, the law in Maryland states that if a student is arrested – not convicted, but merely arrested – for what is known as a “reportable offense,” the school superintendent, principal and security officer must be notified within 24 hours.
This law is otherwise known as the Safe School Act of 2010, which was signed by Governor Martin O’Malley on May 4, 2010. The history of Safe Schools dates back to 1995, when the Maryland Senate created the Student Safety and Support Act. The law stated that if a student was arrested for a reportable offense, the arresting law enforcement agency was required to notify the local superintendent of the arrest within 24 hours. The reportable offenses included more extensive offenses like arson, carjacking, kidnapping, manslaughter, murder and rape, robbery. It was updated several times over the decade to include crimes relating to the production or possession of destructive devices, references to arson and gang violence in schools, and to include private schools.
Michael Busch, Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, introduced the Act to cut down on gang activity and recruitment in schools. Prior to this update, Busch said, “the law [did] not require reporting for some crimes that [could] be indicative of gang membership.” However, the definition of a “criminal gang” under the Maryland Criminal Code is simply too vague. The law states that to be considered a “gang” a group of three or more individuals must “individually or collectively” engage in some sort of criminal activity. If a few teenage girls get together for a sleepover and make plans to smoke some pot, does that qualify them as a “gang”? The law states the individuals must engage in “a pattern” or activity, but how many events does it take to create a pattern? Two? Three? If they make multiple phone calls to try and get the pot, does that count? The law also states that the individuals must “have in common an identifying sign, symbol, name, leader, or purpose.” How do we determine who the “leader” is? The girl who had the connection to a friend of a friend selling pot? What if they called themselves “The Fabulous Foursome”? Surely that would count as an identifying “name.”
This article is not intended to discount the value of the Safe Schools Act in any way – merely to illustrate that the specific wording can be interpreted in a number of ways, some of which can and will lead to unintended consequences for what are sometimes no more than harmless teenage indiscretions. Safe Schools also requires each local school system in Maryland to develop and maintain an inventory of student arrests. Our schools are already overburdened with an influx of regulations that play little if any role in the education of children. Do we really need more? Do we want our public schools to learn when our kids get in trouble with the law away from school?
Cheryl Chado is a rising third year law student at American University and a summer law clerk at HooverLaw.