In the second homework-related arrest in as many weeks, a Denton County juvenile court judge jailed a Ponder student for suspicion of making a terroristic threat after the first-grader wrote a book report on the children's classic Where the Wild Things Are.
Cindy Bradley, a diminutive 6-year-old, was arrested without incident during "story time" at her class at Ponder Elementary School on Tuesday morning. In a court appearance later that day, Judge Darlene Whitten ordered the girl detained for 10 days at the Denton County juvenile detention center while prosecutors contemplate whether to file charges.
"Any implication of violence in a school situation, even if it was just contained in a first-grader's book report, is reason enough for panic and overreaction," Whitten said from the bench. "It's time for you to grow up, young lady, and it's time for us to stop treating kids like children."
Cindy, dressed in blue jeans, a Pokémon T-shirt, handcuffs, and ankle shackles, appeared subdued as she stood before Whitten. Sources say courthouse security officers ordered the shackles after they reviewed her school disciplinary record, which included reprimands for spraying a boy with pineapple juice and sitting on her feet.
"It's not easy finding cuffs that small," said a bailiff, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used. "Fortunately, we ordered a special set last week after that other kid was busted."
That "other kid" is 13-year-old Christopher Beamon, a Ponder seventh-grader whom Whitten ordered detained October 28 after he wrote a graphic Halloween horror story in which he describes shooting a teacher and two students after getting high on Freon. After complaints from parents, Ponder High School Principal Chance Allen called juvenile authorities, who sent sheriff's deputies to remove Christopher from school. He was released after being held five days at the juvenile facility.
Denton County District Attorney Bruce Isaacks said Tuesday that he hasn't decided whether to prosecute Cindy. If convicted of making a terroristic threat, she could be confined to the Texas Youth Commission until she turns 18.
"We've considered having her certified to stand trial as an adult, but even in Texas there are some limits," Isaacks said.
Whitten told reporters that she took action at the request of school officials, who were alarmed by acts of "cannibalism, fanaticism, and disorderly conduct" that Cindy wrote about in her report, titled "Where the Wild Things Are: A Book Report by Cindy Bradley."
Cindy received two gold stars and a stamped smiley face for the teacher-assigned report, according to her mother, Karen Bradley.
"I thought the report was good and deserved the stickers it got," the bewildered mother says. "I thought it was a sign that we had turned a corner with Cindy's academic career. God knows what this will do to her permanent record."
Cindy's trouble began Monday morning, when the mother of one of her classmates called school officials to complain that students at Ponder were encouraged to read books that could cause students to think dangerous thoughts. The officials then contacted Dr. Byron Welch, who runs the Denton county school district, who in turn contacted juvenile authorities.
"In this day and age, you never know what students might do, and I can't risk another Columbine," Welch says. "Frankly, these kids scare the crap out of me."
Welch also confirmed reports that school representatives will soon join several local faith-based organizations, including God-Fearing Opponents of Freedom (GOOF), and ask publishers to review content guidelines for children's books.
Written by Maurice Sendak, the 1964 winner of the Caldecott Medal for Most Distinguished Picture Book, Where the Wild Things Are is a 37-page book about a boy named "Max" who dresses in a wolf costume and is sent to his room without supper for making mischief. The most controversial aspect of the book is contained in an early exchange between Max and his mother. It reads:
"His mother called him 'WILD THING!'
and Max said 'I'LL EAT YOU UP!'
so he was sent to bed without eating anything."
Reached on the presidential campaign trail in South Carolina, Gov. George W. Bush said he had not read the book, but was "appalled that such material could find its way into the hands of a Texas schoolchild. This book clearly has deviant, violent, sexual overtones.
"Parents must understand that zero tolerance means just that," he said. "We won't tolerate anything."
In Washington, D.C., the news of Cindy's arrest prompted an immediate outcry from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has offered to provide Cindy with free legal representation.
"Jesus H. Christ, are you people nuts? She's just a kid," said the ACLU's Emily Whitfield, the organization's national spokeswoman, who commented while en route to Dallas with a team of lawyers in tow. "When I was Cindy's age, we sang 'On Top of Old Smokey,' and 'Marijuana, Marijuana, LSD.'"
The schoolyard rhyme "On Top of Old Smokey" refers to shooting a teacher "with a .44-slug." The later drug ditty concludes: "Scientists make it, teachers take it. Why can't we?"
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By 5 p.m. Tuesday, the day's events were beginning to take their toll on Cindy, who asked her mom to bring her pink pajamas, the ones with the kangaroos on them, before lights-out.
"I don't get why everyone's so mad," Cindy said in a phone interview from the detention center. "Just 'cause I like how Max told his mom he wanted to eat her up and ran away in his mind and did a rumpus with the monsters doesn't mean I would do those things."
Cindy scoffed at the suggestion that Where the Wild Things Are can corrupt young minds.
"Like, I'm sure," she said. "It's bad enough people think like Salinger and Twain are dangerous, but Sendak? Give me a break, for Christ's sake. Excuse my French."