It is readily obvious to anyone who attends Pasco County juvenile court sessions that the weight of boys and girls in trouble with the law is crushing to the legal and social services systems. Hundreds of youngsters crowd into the largest room available at the courthouse regularly to face a circuit judge. There are so many sad stories of children committing serious, often violent, crimes. So many sobbing parents, wondering where they went wrong. A handful of state social workers trying to keep up with the details of too many cases.
Then, to challenge this overloaded system further, along comes cases such as the school bully from Lacoochee Elementary - an 11-year-old, 4-foot, 90-pound boy who apparently talked tough enough to frighten at least five other children into surrendering money that he used for extra items at lunch, such as 35-cent ice cream sandwiches.
Eventually, one of the victims told his parents about the bully.
And although the bully had not been a discipline problem at the school in the past, his assistant principal determined that his transgressions were so serious that they should be reviewed by the Pasco Sheriff's Office. On Thursday morning, a deputy arrested the little boy and charged him with five felony counts of extortion.
Certainly this boy's deeds were wrong, and he deserves to be punished. But to be charged with felony extortion? Is the criminal justice system going to be used to police the schoolyard bullies now?
The police report does not indicate that this particular bully was any different from thousands of others in America who traditionally have been dispatched to the dean's office for parental conferences and suspension. Indeed, he was not especially large. He did not possess a weapon. He had no history as a troublemaker.
But now he finds himself in the juvenile court system, side by side with many peers and teen-agers who have established records for violence and property crimes. How will they influence him? If this bully goes through this system and gets a predictable slap on the wrist, will that be enough to scare him away from future trouble, or will he leave scoffing over the authorities' best shot?
These are serious questions that ought to be discussed openly by the Pasco School Board. Before school officials begin calling on the police to handle elementary school discipline problems, the circumstances should be extraordinary. The case of the Lacoochee Elementary bully does not appear to fit that description.