WAYCROSS, Ga. — Allegations that third-graders hatched an elaborate plot to knock out, handcuff and stab their teacher were met with shock by neighbors and with doubt by psychiatry experts who said it is unlikely that children that young seriously intended to hurt anyone.
Police say the plot at Center Elementary School began because the children, ages 8 to 10, were apparently angry after the teacher disciplined one of the students for standing on a chair.
Students brought a crystal paperweight, a steak knife with a broken handle, steel handcuffs and other items as part of last week's plot, police said Tuesday. They said nine students were involved, but prosecutors are seeking juvenile charges against only three of them.
Experts said children that age are certainly imaginative and capable of creating elaborate games. But Dr. Louis Kraus, a child psychiatry expert at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said he doubts they would have actually attacked.
"The reality is it is highly unlikely they would have been successful at this," Kraus said. "Even if it had begun, it's unclear whether they actually would have followed through with it."
Most premeditated acts of student violence in schools usually don't occur until high school, Kraus said. Younger children have been known to bring knives or other weapons to school, experts said, but often it's more a matter of showing off or acting tough than part of a deliberate assault attempt.
Police said the plot had been organized enough that some students were assigned specific roles such as covering classroom windows and cleaning up any mess.
Most children under the age of 12 don't generally experience the kind of long-standing anger necessary for a premeditated crime, said Dan Mears, an associate professor at Florida State University's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
"Kids tend to be more spontaneous," Mears said. "If they're angry, they act on it right then."
D.A. seeking charges
The district attorney is seeking juvenile charges of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault against an 8-year-old boy and two girls, ages 9 and 10. The girls are also charged with bringing weapons to school.
News of the alleged plot spread quickly through this small south Georgia city on the northern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, where residents are preparing for their annual SwampFest celebration this weekend.
"They were so young, I just couldn't believe it," said Euleathia Harris, 50, who lives in a public housing complex near the school. "I wouldn't think anything like that would happen in little ol' Waycross. I guess if it can happen in the big cities, it can happen here."
Police Chief Tony Tanner said the plot unraveled when a student reported to school officials Friday that a classmate had a knife in her backpack.
Video: 3rd grade plot School officials say they punished all nine students, and some received long-term suspension, but they would not be more specific. Under school system rules, children who bring weapons to school may also face expulsion.
Tanner and District Attorney Rick Currie did not immediately return calls seeking comment Wednesday.
Shavette Owens, whose 7- and 8-year-old children attend the school, said she was glad officials had taken action, but was still somewhat shaken.
"Where were my kids at when these kids had all those weapons?" Owens said. "My heart just dropped, I didn't know what to think."
Georgia law prohibits bringing adult criminal charges against children under 13, but places no age limit on children sent to juvenile court.
Although juvenile offenders can be locked up in detention centers, Randee Waldman, director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory University School of Law, said the children accused in Waycross seem far too young for that.
"It would take an extraordinary circumstance for a child under the age of 10 to be detained," Waldman said. "Juvenile court is rehabilitative in nature. It's not designed to be punitive."
Children so young often aren't considered competent to stand trial, Waldman said, because they lack the maturity to understand even the basics of the legal system. They may also be deemed too young to have had criminal intent, she said.
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