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A trio of incidents earlier this month at Great Mills High School resulting in criminal charges, plus an incident that led to assault charges against two students at Esperanza Middle School, are part of the balanced approach, said county law officers and school officials that they seek in dealing with disturbances.

A St. Mary's sheriff's captain said the cases, including the three from last Friday, Sept. 13, at the high school, do not reflect a sudden increase in crimes at the county's schools, and that the decision to file and publicize charges in those cases was not designed to serve as a warning to students at the start of their new semester.

An assistant superintendent with the county's public schools said the number of fights at schools has decreased during the past decade, and that sheriff's deputies ultimately decide if a crime has occurred and charges will be filed.

The three incidents last week at Great Mills — an alleged assault, a false fire alarm and the discovery of a knife — all were investigated by sheriff's Cpl. Kristi Nelson, one of the deputies assigned as school resource officers to work at the county's high schools and middle schools.

In the assault case, the sheriff's office reports, Nelson determined that a 15-year-old female student assaulted another 15-year-old student by attacking her from behind. The suspect was charged with second-degree assault and disrupting school activities.

A student's tip that a 14-year-old girl attending the school that day had a knife led Nelson to contact the suspect in that case, who “fully cooperated” with the officer, the sheriff's office reports, and surrendered the switchblade weapon. The student was charged with a weapon violation.

Maryland deputy state fire marshals took part in the response to a fire alarm that day at the school, which deputy fire marshal Bruce Bouch said occurred at 9:30 a.m. Pulling a handle on the alarm prompted an evacuation of the building, the fire marshal's office reports, and a teenage boy charged with causing the false alarm later was released to the custody of a guardian. The sheriff's office reports that the student also was charged with disrupting school activities.

On that same day at Esperanza Middle School in Lexington Park, the sheriff's office reports, deputies David Potter and Anthony Cole responded to investigate an alleged assault from two days earlier, and a 14-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl both were charged with committing a second-degree assault and a fourth-degree sexual offense.

The following Monday, a county prosecutor and department of juvenile services agent said at the county courthouse in Leonardtown that they had received no indication that any of the suspects in the school cases had been detained on their charges.

Sheriff's Capt. Edward Willenborg said this week that if an infraction isn't too serious, and if a school's staff and the parents of all children involved agree, the matter is handled by the school system without charges being filed.

“We try to do what's best for the child,” Willenborg said, and the law officers in school are there, including at elementary schools, to discourage problems from occurring. “They're there as a presence,” he said.

The discovery of a weapon in a student's possession will lead to charges being filed, the captain said, but a scuffle between two students often can be handled more informally.

“In most cases, it's what the parents wants,” he said, and that can lead to a conversation instead of the courthouse. “It's a 'Sit down and let's have a talk,'” he said.

Scott Smith, acting assistant superintendent of instruction, said, “Overall, incidents of fights have been going down over the last eight years.”

Smith said that with 1,800 or more students in each of the three public high schools, fights and other infractions do occur. School administrators have not determined any particular pattern, in terms of time of day or day of week, when fights are more likely to happen.

He said there has been no change in how incidents at schools are reported, at least from the schools' perspective. “We haven't changed our reporting procedures to the sheriff's office,” Smith said.

The schools maintain a list of infractions that do rise to the level of reporting to police, including incidents such as having a weapon in school, sexual offenses and fights.

“There is a collaborative relationship between the school system and the sheriff's office,” he said.

The school resource officers will write a report on any such incidents, Smith said, and only sometimes are actual criminal charges filed. Other times, discipline is settled at the school level through suspensions or in-school interventions. Sheriff's deputies “ultimately will determine whether it's a chargeable offense,” Smith said.