Guilty until proven innocent

April 6, 2006, midnight | By Shoshi Gurian-Sherman Allie O'Hora | 14 years, 4 months ago

Arsonist, others allege pressure to convict leads to profiling

Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

On Dec. 16, Juan, a freshman, awoke at 5:30 a.m. to a gun pointed at his face. Three police officers in full SWAT gear stood staring back at him. As Juan and his family were forced bodily from their beds and handcuffed, the rest of the 12-member team ransacked the house for evidence of gang activity — it had received a tip from Blair security that Juan had allegedly attacked another student with a gun.

The weapon never turned up, but by the time the officers had completed their search, Juan was already in police custody.

School officials say that such severe gang-prevention measures are justified by the severity of the gang problem in Montgomery County. According to Montgomery County Police, more than 20 major active gangs (with an estimated 550 active members and associates) are currently operating in the county — a troubling increase over the last few years. More than 200 of these suspected gang members currently attend schools in Montgomery County.

Current school policy focuses mainly on preventing gang activity at all costs and punishing those the school deems to be involved, relying on a standard of proof based mostly on student testimony to substantiate such accusations. Juan is one of several Blair students who has felt the brunt of these policies — he says his case has been mishandled, in part because of the gang presence within MCPS.

"Out of nowhere"

In an interview with Silver Chips, Juan explained that he first heard of the allegations of his supposed gang involvement in mid-November. Juan says that "out of nowhere," he was called into the office of ninth-grade administrator James Short, who told him that Blair security had obtained video footage of Juan attacking another student at the Four Corners McDonald's. Juan was stunned — he replied that he had no idea what Short was talking about. Short told Juan if he were caught doing anything else suspicious, Juan would be suspended and possibly expelled. Juan left shaken but confident he would not be back. When Juan told his father about the accusations, Juan's father asked to see the footage, but Short refused.

Although Short declined to comment on Juan's case, Principal Phillip Gainous said that Blair has no access to any security cameras outside of school property.

Less than a week later, Juan once again found himself in Short's office. Juan says this time, Short was more aggressive, once again bringing up the McDonald's altercation. Juan continued to deny the accusations, but he says Short refused to listen. Short called Juan's father and told him Juan would not be allowed to return to school until his parents attended a meeting with the administration.

During the meeting with Juan's father, Short revealed that, according to a Northwood administrator, a Northwood student had accused Juan of being in a gang and carrying a concealed firearm. Juan knew the Northwood student — the student had verbally harassed him and his friends at the movies and at McDonald's, Juan says — but he had never heard the accusations before. Other than the student's accusations, Short had no evidence of wrongdoing on Juan's part, so he allowed Juan to return to school with a warning.

Tainted by association

Gainous explains that the school acted in the interest of the student body by investigating the Northwood student's claims. Such accusations of gang activity, though based primarily on student sources, are considered reasonable grounds for the investigation, if not the outright punishment, of a student, he says. "If we err on the side of protecting the student, we are ahead of the game," he says. "If we hold until we have all the facts, we're endangering the students."

Because of the administration's suspicions, Juan says he was under far closer scrutiny when he reentered the building. "I knew they was gonna be watching me," he says.

On Juan's first day back, he was pulled aside by former security guard Jose Segura, who claimed to have proof of Juan's gang activity because he believed several of Juan's close friends to be gang members.

Juan admits that he knows several gang members, but the acquaintance is casual at most, he says.

According to Emily Sudbrink, an MCPS Safe and Drug Free Schools volunteer coordinating the April 29 Silver Spring and Wheaton Youth and Family Fair, many students are alarmed by how easy it is to be misidentified as a gang member. "Youth I have spoken to have regularly complained of being `assumed guilty by association,'" she wrote in an e-mail interview.

However, Short emphasizes that the school takes care to investigate claims of gang involvement before taking action against any accused student. "I think there are times when students may be accused and the information received was inaccurate, but we don't single kids out," he says.

Juan's family insists that any accusation of gang involvement is a stretch given that Juan's academic and disciplinary record contains nothing to support the allegations leveled against him by the Blair administration. He has never been arrested, suspended or even reprimanded for any infraction. Narrative evaluations by his special education teachers attest to his work ethic and consistent attendance. His parents are frustrated by the situation because they cannot defend their son without being labeled "in denial."

In Gainous's experience, however, gang members often act more polite and well-behaved than other students because they need to maintain a low profile to avoid arousing suspicion, and parents are often the most easily fooled. "If you challenge the authorities, you're going to get thrown out, but [gang members] know how to play the game, stay under the radar," he says.

Most of all, Gainous says, accusations of gang involvement don't come out of nowhere. While students accused of gang relations may not be active members of the gang, he says, they may be "gang wannabes" — friends and cohorts who implicitly support gang members. "Wannabes" who want to prove themselves worthy of initiation and inclusion in the gang are often just as dangerous as the gang members themselves, Gainous says.

Last resort

But participating in gang activities is sometimes an involuntary act, as Ana, a freshman, can attest. Ana, a native of El Salvador who speaks little English after only a year in the United States, was being pressured by a female student associated with MS-13 who later turned out to be a recruiter. Ana says she repeatedly resisted, but the recruiter's pressure eventually turned to threats. The recruiter told Ana that if she did not comply, she would be attacked. Ana finally decided to ask Blair security for help and approached Segura with her story. Ana says that although she asked to remain anonymous, he insisted she confront the recruiter. Segura declined to comment on the case.

Ana says she felt she had nowhere to turn — the confrontation with the recruiter had only complicated her predicament. On Dec. 8, the recruiter cornered her outside a second-floor bathroom and pressed her to light a fire in the trashcan. Ana followed the recruiter into the bathroom but refused to light the fire. Impatient, the recruiter thrust the lighter into Ana's hand, lit it and pushed it towards paper towels, which ignited, dropping into the trashcan. The recruiter left, and Ana panicked and fled minutes after. "I was told that there was just going to be smoke, but when I saw there were actual flames, I got so scared," she says.

Ana was taped by a surveillance camera as she was coming out of the bathroom and was then arrested by Montgomery County Police.

During her questioning with Blair security staff, before police arrived, she says she tried to explain the pressure she had been under from the recruiter. However, the guards dismissed her statements again, thinking she was trying to divert the blame for the crime.

According to Sudbrink, Ana's story demonstrates a critical flaw in the school administration's approach to gang prevention, highlighting the need for counseling and support rather than punishment. "Sometimes misunderstandings are going to occur," says Sudbrink. "I am concerned, though, that sometimes it seems that we, adults, are focusing too much on punishment and not nearly enough on intervention and prevention."

"A witch hunt"

Juan believes his innocence should have been obvious and that his ordeal could have been prevented had Blair security personnel and administration taken a closer look at the case from the beginning. At the trial, Juan's accuser admitted that he could identify neither his attacker nor the gun that he had been threatened with and later explained that he had accused Juan because he had a personal vendetta against him. Ultimately, the case was dismissed because of lack of evidence, but Juan was detained for a month at the Alfred Noyes Children's Center while awaiting his arraignment.

Gainous says that the investigation was ultimately successful. During the investigation, security learned of the gang involvement of another student and reported the information to the police. In a search of that student's house, the weapon Juan had allegedly used to threaten the Northwood student at McDonald's was recovered.

Juan has since returned to school and says he feels his life is finally returning to normal. However, like the broken doors and dented walls left by the SWAT team, Juan's father says the emotional effects of the ordeal have yet to be healed.

Ana was charged with three felony counts, two of which were dismissed during plea bargaining. On Dec. 23, she pled guilty to one arson charge. She felt she had no other choice.

Parent advocate Rosa Sanchez, who acted as a translator for the families of both students through the court proceedings, agrees that both cases could have been prevented. She says that the pressure to convict gang members has lowered standard of proof required for allegations of gang activity. It's no surprise, she says, that innocent students have been accused. "They accused [Juan] without finding out the truth," she says. "It's a witch hunt."

Ana has been expelled and is currently enrolled at an alternative school but will be allowed back in Blair next year if her record remains clean. She insists that she never meant to hurt anyone or cause any property damage, but she realizes that entering the bathroom knowing that the recruiter intended to set a fire made her an accomplice to the crime. Though she still fears pressure from gang recruiters, she is optimistic about her future. "I let them manipulate me," she says, "but I won't let them do it again."

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Shoshi Gurian-Sherman. Shoshi Gurian-Sherman is a CAP junior and a junior staffer for Silver Chips. This is her first time working on a newspaper although she has always liked reading the Washington Post and loved her 10th grade Journalism class. She most enjoys writing feature stories and … More »

Allie O'Hora. Allie O'Hora is a CAP senior. If you make fun of her last name, she will kill you and make it look like an accident. More »

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