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Family upset field trip to library gets 6-year-old placed in jail

Six-year-old Stephen Stovall went school field trip which included visit inside police statijail much displeasure his grandmother FlorWare. Photographed onTuesday

Six-year-old Stephen Stovall went on a school field trip which included a visit inside a police station jail, much to the displeasure of his grandmother, Flora Ware. Photographed onTuesday, April 17, 2012 in Berkeley. | Sun-Times~Richard A. Chapman

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Updated: May 21, 2012 8:42AM

At 6 years old, Stephen Stovall has seen the inside of jail.

But not because he did anything wrong.

Stephen’s kindergarten class was taken to jail at the Hillside Police Station on Monday as part of a field trip organized by a teacher at Sunnyside Elementary in that western suburb — a field trip parents were told was to be a visit to the library.

Now, some of those parents are upset because they were unaware the field trip called for their children to visit a jail.

“Is this supposed to be a scared-straight tactic?” Stephen’s indignant mother, Carmen Ware, wanted to know. “For 6-year-olds? I don’t get this. What exactly is Sunnyside School saying — that it is a temporary holding facility for the jailhouse?”

Stephen’s family says he was put in a jail cell — and locked up. Hillside police dispute that, saying the boy may have confused a holding area with bars a cell.

“They were never placed in jail cells,” Hillside Police Chief Joseph M. Lukaszek. “We have six jail cells not once were they placed in jail cells. They walked past one of our cells, the door was open. They were shown a bed and a toilet. Nobody was allowed in. I think the young man, because he was in our holding area, and the holding area has bars, he may have interpreted it as a jail cell, because he didn’t know the difference.”

The “Parental Approval Form” parents were required to sign described an “educational field trip” to “Hillside Public Library and Village Hall” for the purpose of “exploring community resources.”

“You take them on different trips to expose them to things,” said Ware, noting that at the college she attends as a full-time student, she often sees children her son’s age visiting. So by taking them to jail, “Are you telling this child he is so bad, and that the public school system is a holding facility? What are you saying?” she demanded.

The “Parental Approval Form” sent home with Stephen was signed by Flora Ware, the boy’s grandmother, in her daughter’s absence.

The grandmother was later stunned to learn from Stephen that he had gone to jail instead. They learned of the jail visit when Carmen Ware asked Stephen what he did that day.

“He said he was shown a vest and holster that holds a gun, and something that goes on your ankle, and he was put in a jail cell and the door was locked,” his mother said.

“We were both upset,” Stephen’s grandmother said. “We are wondering what they are prepping him for? What are they saying to kindergartners? If you don’t listen to us, this is where you are going to end up?”

Another mother whose daughter went on the jail trip also felt parents were misled.

“I wouldn’t have wanted a kindergartner being shown a gun holder and all that,” Lisa Wanderer said. “My daughter [Aliyah] was uncomfortable.”

The principal at the west suburban elementary school, Nancy Tortora, did not respond to inquiries. Also declining to comment about the jail-cell field trip was Berkeley School District 87 Supt. Eva Smith.

It isn’t uncommon for elementary-age children to participate in local jail programs.

But law enforcement officials say it’s relatively unheard of for kindergartners.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Department, for instance, engages seventh- and eighth-graders through its Sheriff’s Motivational and Responsibility Training program.

“We would never allow kindergartners in the jail and we do not lock up any kids in cells,” a department spokeswoman said.

Others also questioned the wisdom of exposing children to jails at such a young age and drew the line at locking them up in jail cells and showing them weapons.

“I don’t think it is a good idea at that age,” said Ed Hoes, executive director of the Illinois Police Association. “. . . We would do a lot of stuff in schools with Officer Friendly. But no guns, no ammo. As far as showing weapons or placing or locking kids in a cell, we never did that.”

La Grange Police Chief Michael Holub said field trips to police stations happen all the time.

“What we try to do is lay the groundwork for a positive relationship outside of the traditional police response. It doesn’t involve displaying weapons,” Holub said. “And the kids are a bit older, about fifth grade. We don’t lock them in cells. Everyone who comes here has a parental slip. We are not conducting rogue tours.”

Stephen’s grandmother says the school violated her daughter’s parental rights.

“We didn’t give permission for that kind of trip,” Flora Ware said.

“What about taking them to the University of Chicago or to Northwestern University? They didn’t have the right to take her son to jail without permission. They didn’t have the right to put his hand on a holster that a gun was in,” she said. “They didn’t have the right to let him touch a bullet-proof vest, or show him Tasers.”

The family wants answers.

This column contains corrected information regarding the location of the police station.

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