Two prominent Hispanic organizations, upset that two fifth-graders face felony charges for putting soap in their teacher's drinking water, have asked the Arlington school system to intervene in the case.
In a letter to the superintendent and chair, leaders of the two groups have asked that school officials urge county prosecutors to use "prosecutorial discretion" and drop the charges against the boys, who are both Hispanic.
"We think the punishment was already given by the school system," Claudia Baena Soares, co-chairman of Hispanic Parents of Arlington, said yesterday. "What we don't understand is how this got so out of control and how this suddenly became a police case."
Arlington school spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said yesterday that the matter is out of the school system's hands.
"It would be inappropriate to intervene in the court's handling of the case," she said, noting that school officials already have suspended the Randolph Elementary students for three days.
"Nobody seems to have a beef with how the school system punished the students. As far as we're concerned it's no longer really a school issue. It's an issue that's with the courts," she said.
It was the teacher, not school officials, Farbstein reiterated, who wanted to take the students to court. But she said the teacher, who became so alarmed after drinking some of the water that he called the poison control center, had a right to pursue the case criminally.
Members of Soares' organization and the League of United Latin American Citizens, a 70-year-old Hispanic civil rights group, voiced their concerns about the case with the Arlington School Board last night. They also plan a vigil for 6 p.m. Monday outside the Arlington courthouse and have distributed fliers that say: "It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a criminal charge to destroy a child."
The boys, both 10, are charged with trying to kill or injure their teacher by "adulterating" his water bottle with an alcohol-based antibacterial gel soap Oct. 12 while he was out of the classroom. The boys are scheduled for trial in juvenile court Dec. 21.
The teacher, Michael D. Searles, was not injured, according to police. Searles has not publicly discussed the case, and two weeks ago a juvenile judge ordered the attorneys and families not to discuss the case in the media.
Before the gag order was issued, the mother of one of the boys, Rosa Hernandez, said in an interview that she did not understand why her son was being charged criminally and feared that he would be put in jail or a program for juvenile offenders. The Washington Post has a policy not to identify juvenile defendants. Hernandez allowed her name to be used because her son has a different surname.
Soares said the Hispanic community is concerned that what happened at the school, where 58 percent of the students are Hispanic, is part of a larger problem.
"The fact is, what these kids did is wrong," said Walter Tejada, state director of the Virginia league. "They needed to be disciplined, which they have been. It's upsetting that this type of incident would be taken to a level of a felony."
Tejada said that the Hispanic community believes "this is the tip of the iceberg that Latinos are being subjected to. We just have had enough. . . . There is a strong sentiment in the community that if these were other, privileged kids, that there is a high likelihood that it would not have been taken to this level."