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3 Maryland juveniles are charged with hate crimes. How did it get to that point?

Last month the Calvert County, Md., state's attorney's office filed misdemeanor hate crimes charges against three 13-year-olds, alleging they targeted a fellow Plum Point Middle School (shown here) classmate, who is Jewish.
Google Maps/Screenshot by NPR
Last month the Calvert County, Md., state's attorney's office filed misdemeanor hate crimes charges against three 13-year-olds, alleging they targeted a fellow Plum Point Middle School (shown here) classmate, who is Jewish.

When Robert Harvey read the report from Maryland State Police last month alleging that a middle school student had been repeatedly targeted with anti-Semitic harassment by her classmates, the Calvert County, Md., state's attorney was deeply disturbed.

"I saw this report of this incident and immediately asked that there be further investigation and ultimately determined, after looking at the law, that we believe that charges for hate crimes were appropriate," Harvey told NPR.

Because the case involves minors, the charges are sealed and NPR was unable to reach the defendants. Reached through Harvey, the complainant and her family declined to speak with a reporter. But Harvey has shared some of the allegations publicly. After his office filed charges, it put out a press release.

"They were harassing [the victim] over several months, drawing swastikas on notepaper and showing them to her," he said. "They were holding their finger under their nose like a Hitler mustache and making derogatory comments about her physical appearance."

Harvey said that his office found no indication that allegations of what occurred at Plum Point Middle School included acts or threats of violence. Still, it filed misdemeanor hate crimes charges against three 13-year-olds and petitioned the state's Department of Juvenile Justice for supervision of three 12-year-olds. The cases of those facing criminal charges will also go to that department, where an intake officer may opt to drop the charges if the youths fulfill an alternative course of remedy, such as community service, apologies or remedial instruction.

"I wanted to be sure that whatever happens, I'm aware of it," Harvey said. "And I want to be sure that whatever happens to these young men, it meets my criteria that they be held to some degree accountable for what they did."

The use of criminal hate crime charges against children has surprised some, especially those who track how common it has become for kids to be exposed to extremist ideologies.

"A youth of 12 or 13 should not be facing hate crimes charges," said Brian Hughes, who's with American University and is co-founder and executive director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL).

It is key, he said, for Calvert County leaders, both inside the school system and outside of it, to ensure that the student who was targeted by the harassment is receiving the support she needs.

But it is also a moment for them to refocus on what's needed to create a healthier, more resilient learning environment where students do not feel emboldened to openly express hateful ideologies. Because, Hughes noted, children even younger than 12 years old are almost inevitably going to encounter those ideologies.

"Any child who has access to the Internet, especially unsupervised access to the Internet, is going to encounter neo-Nazi propaganda very quickly," Hughes said. "There are [hate] groups that specifically hang out in Roblox, which is a very popular game with pre-teens."

As national attention has recently focused on the question of anti-Semitism on college campuses, FBI statistics show that, historically, reported hate crime offenses have occurred more often at elementary and secondary schools. The agency's latest breakdown shows that in 2022, there were roughly 900 reported offenses at K-12 schools. Most have targeted Black people, with anti-Jewish offenses coming in next.

Re-socializing kids after the COVID remote-school era has been a challenge

Calvert County school officials did not respond to questions from NPR about how much teachers or staff knew of the alleged harassment, and what, if anything, they had been doing about it. A statement said "Upon completion of an investigation, students and school personnel may be subject to disciplinary action or consequences for discriminatory behaviors."

Mary Bonney, herself a graduate of the Calvert County schools, said she regularly sees students grappling with ideologies that they encounter, which conflict with the values they're taught at school. Bonney runs the Calvert Peace Project, which helps to foster community collaboration and understanding. The program has worked with youth in some of the schools. She said there's been the added challenge, in recent years, of re-socializing children after the COVID period, during which they attended schools remotely.

"Students aren't sure how to interact and aren't sure how to resolve their conflicts," said Bonney. "We've seen that complaint over and over with the administration, with the teachers and with the students, that it's really difficult."

A member of the Church of Latter-day Saints, Bonney said that she, too, experienced harassment in middle school because of her religion. But after reporting it to a teacher, it stopped. Bonney said it's notable that in the current instance, the student and her parents felt it had reached a point where they had to go to the Maryland State Police.

"If it's escalated to that point, then it's beyond just the school," she said. "It requires parents and religious and civic organizations and schools and other public institutions and the community members themselves to say this is not acceptable behavior. We don't treat one another this way."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.