Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Police err in citing parents for trespassing

Principals have the power to make the call on who is banned from school grounds

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Damascus resident Lisa Lowe has been unable to attend PTA meetings, teacher conferences or her oldest son’s eighth-grade graduation since police cited her with trespassing at a school following an incident last May.

A District Court judge threw out the charge against Lowe last summer, saying a school is public property and by definition public property is open to the public.

But the court ruling did not allow her to enter John T. Baker Middle School in Damascus, where she has a seventh-grader. That took a note from the State Attorney General’s Office in Baltimore dated March 14, saying police were wrong in citing her with trespassing.

Lowe was permitted to attend her first parent-teacher conference of the year with her son’s teachers two weeks ago after Assistant Attorney General William H. Fields sent an e-mail to Ralph. E. Hall Jr., Lowe’s attorney.

‘‘As the incident occurred at a government building, the officer should have issued a Disruptive Behavior form, not a Trespass Notification form,” he wrote. ‘‘... the Disruptive Behavior form has a provision for requesting a hearing. The Trespass Notification does not have such provisions as it is used for private property.”

G. Scott Rogers, a Damascus parent of a Potomac Elementary School third-grader in the Chinese Immersion Program, faces a similar problem after he was charged by police with trespassing during an incident at the school March 6.

Rogers is not due in court until April 28.

The disruptive behavior form would bar someone from school grounds for up to 90 days with a hearing required the day after the citation is issued, Hall said. The trespassing citation bars someone for a year and a hearing is subject to a court docket.

‘‘No trespassing is a tool the school was using to avoid communicating with parents who they feel they did not want to,” Lowe said. ‘‘It’s a breach of what’s just and fair. It goes against many MCPS policies.”

School policy considers parent involvement important, said Montgomery County Public School Chief of Staff Brian Edwards.

By state law, principals may issue no-trespass letters that are valid for up to one year if they consider a parent to be a threat to the school’s staff or children, he said.

‘‘The principal has an obligation to ensure the building is safe,” Edwards said. ‘‘It is a measure we do not like to take or take lightly. It is only done in extreme circumstances when it is warranted.”

Principals work with police and, in the cases cited, considered calling the police appropriate ‘‘to maintain a safe environment,” he said.

‘‘Police obviously issued the wrong citation. We’ll work with them,” Edwards said.

State law does grant principals authority to issue no-trespass orders, said Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office.

Fields’ e-mail should not be considered a ruling on the trespass issue, but simply a response to questions posed by Hall, she said.