Handcuffs aren’t the answer when a 12-year-old brings a gun to school

Anne Arundel police launched a critique of Maryland law blocking an arrest — but left out the full story.

Published on: January 13, 2023 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: January 13, 2023 11:20 AM EST

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A 12-year-old boy brought a gun to school the other day.

Police put out news releases almost every day. This crime happened there, we arrested these people over here, that happened on Monday and please help find this person today.

So when Anne Arundel County Police issued a statement around 11 a.m. on Jan. 6 about the incident at MacArthur Middle School at Fort Meade, it looked like another update on a matter of public concern. Instead, it was a political lament.

County police bemoaned reforms passed last year that prevented them from hauling this kid and others like him away in handcuffs.

If the police are correct, then the boy did something frightening. He brought a handgun with a loaded clip and loose ammunition in a bag to a county-run middle school at the Army post. The principal sent a letter home saying there was no evidence the child made any threats.

But the Police Department’s purpose wasn’t to inform the public about a threat to safety. It was an all-caps, boldface, finger-pointing placement of blame.

“Due to the new Juvenile Justice Reform, House Bill 459 voted into law; there are NO APPLICABLE CHARGES,” the statement read. “A 12-year-old can no longer be charged with certain crimes, including bringing a handgun & ammunition to school.” [bold type in original]

I have a lot of respect for the police. They saved the lives of several of my colleagues during the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette nearly five years ago. But in this case, the department was wrong. This was fearmongering.

Police didn’t tell the public much about what happened in this incident, and there is so much more to know.

Instead, they focused on hip-checking state lawmakers returning to Annapolis this week.

“Since the law took effect on June 1, 2022, we have had dozens of cases where juvenile suspects were located, identified, and unable to be charged,” a department spokesperson wrote in the news release. “Those cases include assaults, weapons violations, intimidation, harassment, drug charges, theft, burglary, sex offenses, threats, motor vehicle thefts, animal abuse, arson, and incident exposures.”

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The strategy was to set a news agenda, and through it influence public policy. Several news outlets took the bait, showing a picture of the gun and red-tipped ammunition that school resource officers took from the child. Some repeated verbatim what the police said, passing on the message — untested — that reforms were blocking the right response to juvenile crime.

Then, about three hours after Anne Arundel Police sent out its news release, a 6-year-old who brought a gun to school shot a teacher in Virginia. The teacher survived and managed to direct students into the hallway before the first-grader was restrained. Authorities in Virginia say they aren’t likely to charge the child.

Look, guns in schools are terrifying. Police officers are in schools today because of gun violence. Starting with Columbine in 1999, through the massacre in Uvalde and the 50 other school shootings last year, and on to that tragedy in Newport News, this is every parent’s, teacher’s and student’s worst nightmare.

Anyone who knew about that 12-year-old in Anne Arundel focused on what-ifs and unintended consequences. Playing on fear of crime is so easy.

But think about what the police didn’t say.

They didn’t point out that Maryland has a weak law on safe gun storage, and that efforts to strengthen it have failed for two years. The owner of the gun brought to that school faces a $1,000 fine if convicted of the misdemeanor offense.

Police haven’t said who owned the gun. A spokesperson confirmed Wednesday that no charges have been filed against the boy’s family, and he told police he found it outside. An investigation is ongoing.

The department did mention that the gun appears to be a kit gun, and from the looks of it, it might even be an illegal ghost gun.

It didn’t say that its widely respected Crisis Intervention Team is among the agencies that respond when a child is involved. These highly trained officers go way beyond the initial response to an incident, helping families cope with circumstances too complex to fit into a news release.

Nor did they mention that other agencies intervene with mental health and counseling services when children in trouble encounter the police, such as the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services or Anne Arundel County Public Schools. Maryland now allows police or family members to file a Child in Need of Supervision (CINS) complaint, providing intervention services without an arrest.

It didn’t ask how we failed this boy. Enhanced CINS programs are up and running in Baltimore County, Prince George’s County and Baltimore City, but not in Anne Arundel.

I’m not playing down the scariness of a child bringing a gun or other weapon to school. It happened 268 times last school year in this county, a rising trend.

If you actually look at the data on the last six months released by police, the incident at Fort Meade was the only time that police dealt with a child 12 or under who had a gun anywhere in the county.

Police didn’t say this was a problem only at schools, but it was an easy leap. Only 75 of the 178 incidents involving kids 12 and under listed by police took place on school grounds. Forty-six took place in homes.

The most common offense? Assaults — fighting — topped the list at 85. That was followed by threats, 26. There were 16 thefts, including one car theft. There were 11 sex offenses and one rape. Sure enough, the rape took place at a home, not in a school.

The incidents at schools were spread across 38 schools, including one private school. The handgun at MacArthur Middle was one of 11 incidents at that school, the most involving kids under 12. But Annapolis Middle, Meade Middle and Arundel Middle weren’t far behind, with seven incidents each.

The youngest child listed as a suspect was 4.

Given the size of the student population, 75 incidents do not constitute a crime wave.

The department got what it wanted. Del. Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore County, cited the incident as one of the reasons she’ll introduce legislation restoring police powers to charge kids 12 and under.

“A 12-year-old brings a handgun to school? Sure,” she said.

She said an arrest brings a child before a judge, who can make sure there’s an intervention. She didn’t know that the Child in Need of Supervision program does the same thing.

“You won’t change my mind,” she said.

The biggest omission from that police statement is that the right response to this and other juvenile crimes, no matter the age of the child, is more resources, not more arrest powers.

Anne Arundel County Police Chief Awal Amad declined a request for an interview, and a department spokesperson said the agency would have nothing more to say on the law keeping officers from putting cuffs on that middle school kid.

I asked if her boss, County Executive Steuart Pittman, supported changing the law. The Democrat, too, was horrified about the danger of a gun in school, but he wouldn’t say directly that his police department had gotten it wrong.

Instead, just as that release said so much by omission, Pittman’s statement spoke volumes without answering my question.

“We are fortunate in Anne Arundel County to have well-trained, nationally-recognized school resource officers and teachers who play an important role in keeping our children safe,” he said. “We will continue to work with [Superintendent Mark Bedell] and the school system to assess our school safety policies and procedures. And we will continue to ensure students and families in need of early intervention are recognized and connected to resources that will help keep guns out of our schools.”

Intervention. Not handcuffs, size extra small.