Two Arlington fifth-graders appeared in court yesterday on felony charges that they tried to kill or injure their teacher by putting soap in his drinking water.

Juvenile Court Judge Esther Wiggins closed the brief hearing to the news media and ordered the attorneys and families not to discuss the case, which already has received national attention. Patrick N. Anderson, the attorney for one of the boys, said his client is scheduled to stand trial Dec. 21.

Anderson was brought into the case by the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group based in Charlottesville, which said that the incident is a classic example of educators overreacting to student misbehavior.

"Something's wrong with our society when we're charging kids with felonies for playing pranks on teachers," said John Whitehead, the institute's founder and president. "I think it's damaging to schoolchildren psychologically to do this sort of thing. We all used to play all kinds of pranks."

But Marjorie McCreery, executive director of the Arlington Education Association, the county teachers union, defended the teacher's actions.

"We believe the teacher appropriately reported this incident to his principal and the youth resource officer," McCreery said. "The teacher is interested in getting appropriate services for these students. It is our understanding that the police and the [commonwealth's] attorney determined what charges were appropriate."

The two students at Randolph Elementary School, both 10, are charged with putting the soap in their teacher's water bottle Oct. 12 while he was out of the classroom. Police said the soap was an alcohol-based gel that is used for washing hands without water.

The teacher, Michael D. Searles, was not injured, according to police. Searles has not returned reporters' calls, and school officials said he has told them that he does not want to discuss the case.

Arlington County schools spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the school system has received many calls from the public since the story broke in the news media, with people voicing equally strong opinions about who the victim is--Searles or his students.

"We have received phone calls on both sides, many indicating very strong support for the teacher moving forward, and many calls from parents concerned that the felony charge is too strong for what the students did," Farbstein said.

Farbstein reiterated yesterday that it was Searles, not school officials, who wanted to take the students to court, and that it was not the route the school system would have chosen. The school's principal had suspended the boys for three days and ordered them to perform community service.

But Farbstein said Searles had a right to pursue the case. She said that after drinking some of the water, he became so alarmed that he called the poison control center.

The teacher wanted to press charges against the two students, but the charges are based on the police department's investigation of the case, said Cpl. Justin McNaull, an Arlington police spokesman. "We can go forward with a charge without the desire of the victim," McNaull said. "However, he indicated he wanted to go forward with it."

According to a law enforcement source, police determined that the boys had told other students before the Oct. 12 incident that they disliked their teacher and wanted to harm him.

Anderson said he supported Wiggins's decision to close yesterday's hearing to the news media. Juvenile judges have wide discretion about whether to allow the public to attend hearings involving children younger than 14, said University of Richmond law professor Robert Shepherd.

Luis Hernandez, the stepfather of the boy Anderson is representing, did not make it inside the courtroom before the doors were closed. "I really don't like what they're doing," Hernandez said. "He's only 10 years old."

Staff writer Brooke A. Masters contributed to this report.