About 75 people chanting, "Drop the charges now!" marched outside the Arlington County Courthouse last night to protest the prosecution of two 10-year-old Hispanic boys charged with felonies for allegedly putting soap in their teacher's drinking water.
Among those attending the protest organized by the Salvadoran-American Association of Northern Virginia were County Board member Chris Zimmerman and Vice Chairman Barbara A. Favola, who said they came out to show their support to the community.
"I am sympathetic to their concerns," said Favola (D), who brought along her 11-year-old son. "A felony charge seems like real serious stuff for behavior that can be corrected in another way."
The protesters, primarily from the Hispanic community, held signs saying, "You must educate, not incriminate" and, "It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a criminal charge to destroy a child."
"We're trying to make the court system drop the charges," said Teresa Guzman, a coordinator with the Salvadoran-American group. "It should have been contained within the school system."
Arlington Commonwealth's Attorney Richard E. Trodden said earlier yesterday that he could not comment in light of a gag order from a juvenile court judge. The boys, charged with adulterating drinking water with intent to kill or harm, are scheduled for trial Dec. 21, and the case has received national media attention.
Police have said that the soap was an alcohol-based antibacterial solution and that the Randolph Elementary School teacher was not injured. A law enforcement source said that the boys had told other students before the incident that they wanted to harm the teacher.
Last week, the Hispanic Parents of Arlington and the League of United Latin American Citizens asked the county school superintendent and the School Board to intervene in the case.
In a letter of response released last night, Superintendent Robert G. Smith said it would be inappropriate to comment on a pending court case. He reiterated that "school officials suspended the children, required community service and believed that those consequences were appropriate." Smith said in the letter that there have been 36 elementary school suspensions so far this school year, including three Asian, four white, eight Hispanic and 21 black students.
Responding to a question about policing, Smith said: "Essentially, the [county police] resource officers often act as members of the school staff in questioning students, without notification of parents about many school-related incidents. If the initial questioning leads to formal questioning regarding a possible criminal act, then we expect parents to be notified."
Zimmerman (D) said last night that he is particularly concerned about the young age of the children and wonders whether the incident would have been handled differently "if it were two children from a different community."
Zimmerman, who said two of his children attended Randolph, added: "It's very troubling."
CAPTION: Guilfredo Bohorquez and his son, Jose, 11, rally in support of two boys charged with felonies for allegedly putting soap in their teacher's water.