Officials review JMB fight circumstances, reaction

The fight at James M. Bennett High School last week – an incident that resulted in several arrests and deputies using pepper spray against unruly students – is not being taken lightly by school authorities.

“I assure you Dr. Donna Hanlin (superintendent of schools) will deal with this in the most appropriate way. The board of education doesn’t have its head in the sand. People who are misbehaving are being dealt with,” said Don Fitzgerald, president of the Wicomico County Board of Education.

“Even though it was a bad incident, our staff handled it pretty well with the Sheriff’s Department. What I want to challenge people with is, every morning, we open our doors and we don’t have problems in that school. We all don’t need to throw stones at each other. We all need to sit down and see what the problems are in society and at home.

“Do we have some knuckleheads? Absolutely. But (Principal Rick) Briggs and his staff are doing a fantastic job,” Fitzgerald said.

Hanlin was expected to discuss the April 5 matter with board members in closed session this week.

Arrests were made after a student was attacked in the hallway at Bennett, reportedly after a fight concerning child support payments.  The fight escalated, the Sheriff’s Department was called, a deputy used pepper spray to control the growing crowd of students fighting and cheering them on and several arrests were made.

This week, Sheriff Mike Lewis told the Salisbury Independent three more arrests were made after the incident, bringing the total to nine. The additional arrests were based on footage from school security cameras, he said.

Many more students “will be dealt with administratively and could face suspension and possible expulsion,” he said.

Bennett has security cameras that produce very clear images, Lewis said.

“Several students who escaped custody Wednesday during the fracas have been identified,” he said.

Lewis said the fight started between two girls and when a male got involved, “the encounter became physical.”

“Other male students joined in, and several fights were going on at the same time,” Lewis said.

A sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school tried to intervene. His use of pepper spray was “fully justified,” Lewis said.

“No excessive force was used by the deputy at all. He was fully warranted in pulling the pepper spray to protect himself and to protect the victim of the assault. The deputy was trying to protect the victim from further assault in the face of an unruly crowd,” the sheriff said.

“We had a situation in which one deputy was trying to control hundreds of individuals that were either participating by cheering on or trying to get a better view of what was going on. You can imagine the threat that the deputy felt not only to school safety but to himself and to the victim of the assault when he called for help,” Lewis said.

“Thank God we had enough police officers who responded with a strong show of force, but we only had about 25 cops there versus a student body of 1,600. Rubbernecking made it virtually impossible for officers and deputies to penetrate and get to the root of the problem,” he said.

Ultimately, officers from the Salisbury Police Department, the Fruitland Police Department and the Maryland State Police responded.

One student was injured, a girl treated for hyperventilation before being released to her mother.

Charges included second-degree assault and disturbing a school environment, the sheriff said. Second-degree assault is a misdemeanor, so the minors will be processed through the juvenile court system, Lewis explained.

Salisbury Police charged Elijah J. Alston after he tried to assault an officer. According to charging documents, he was held in the school office with three other students following the fight. When two students were arrested, police said Alston became agitated. School administration needed to use the room, so they asked a Salisbury police officer to take Alston across the hall to another room.

When Alston refused to move, the officer grabbed him by the arm and led him across the hall, police said. In the room, Alston pushed off the officer and swung at him, connecting with his forearm. After a struggle, police said Alston was taken into custody.

On the same day, a teacher was injured trying to intercede in a fight at Choices Academy, the county’s alternative school, but Fitzgerald said the incidents were not related.

“I want the public to know – and this is coming from me – that students are going to behave. Misbehavior is not going to be tolerated. I’m sorry it happened. The use of pepper spray was well-deserved. I do not begrudge that. The deputy was threatened and I don’t begrudge him a bit,” Fitzgerald said.

After the incident, Hanlin issued a statement saying providing a safe learning environment “every day for our students and staff is our highest priority.”

“When we have a disruption to school routine … we respond quickly and decisively with whatever resources we have available to ensure the incident is handled and order is restored. While it turned out that we did not need as much law enforcement support as immediately responded to the school, we do appreciate the quick response and readiness of officers from the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office and Salisbury City Police.

“We have an excellent working relationship with law enforcement in support of safe schools. Our staff and law enforcement personnel handled the incident very well, and the vast majority of JMB students did an excellent job of following directions and continuing with the school day,” Hanlin wrote.

Most students remained in school that day.

There were reports that the school was on lockdown, but the status was position in place, not lockdown. Position in place means students were kept inside classrooms.

Lockdown is issued for armed intruders and exterior threats and when no one can enter or exit the school.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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