Freedom of Screech

When an aspiring violinist wore the wrong T-shirt to class, his high school principal had him arrested

To the untrained ear, it might not have been apparent that a civil-rights protest was under way last September 29 during the second-period string orchestra class at the School for the Performing Arts at Dillard High.

As usual the students unpacked and tuned their instruments, locked eyes upon the conductor's baton, and proceeded to fill the classroom with the interwoven patterns of notes from violins, violas, cellos, basses, and other strings.

To the trained ear, however, there was discord in the air. The class had just witnessed one of its members, a sixteen-year-old violinist named Matthew Malamud, being handcuffed and hauled out of class by a Fort Lauderdale cop. Stunned by their classmate's abrupt arrest and disturbed by what they viewed as a gross overreaction on the part of the teacher, the students expressed their displeasure in measures of audible anger.

"We played out of tune on purpose," says Marianne Crawford, a junior who plays violin. "We didn't want to play at all."

Four months later the anger still lingers, and at the Malamud household, its expression is unambiguous. "What happened was totally ridiculous," says Cary Malamud, Matthew's father. "Totally unprofessional." Cary and his wife, Dara, resent their son's having been handcuffed, booked, and fingerprinted as a result of what they consider no more than an unfortunate misunderstanding that could easily have been resolved with a little common sense. "They had my son arrested like a common criminal."

On the day in question, Malamud came to school wearing a flannel shirt on the outside and a T-shirt underneath. The T-shirt displayed a phrase that to an outsider would seem, at best, to be a dim and unfunny attempt at a witticism: "Who Puts the Hell in Hello?"

Actually it's an inside joke at Dillard High; to get the joke, you had to have taken a class with a particular teacher famous for quieting unruly classrooms with a piercing, fiercely delivered "Hell-ooo!"

Although Malamud says he kept the T-shirt covered by his flannel shirt, he admits showing it to a select private audience of close friends in the performing arts program. And, inevitably, word got around.

At the start of the second period, Malamud's teacher, James Miles -- not the "Hello" teacher, but another one -- took Malamud aside and explained that he knew what the shirt said, that he wasn't going to tolerate it in his classroom, and that Malamud had to go take it off. Malamud refused. The teacher responded that if he didn't take the shirt off, he was going to have to leave the classroom. "I said I would be happy to go if someone would tell me what I had done wrong," Malamud recalls. "That's all I wanted to know."

At this point a school security monitor came in to escort Malamud to the principal's office, but still the student refused to budge. After a discussion via walkie-talkie with Dillard Asst. Principal Joanne Boggus, a police officer was summoned. The officer placed Malamud under arrest, cuffed him with his hands behind his back, took him outside, frisked him against the squad car, and put him in back.

For Malamud, an intense, bespectacled youth who plays an $8000 handmade violin and dreams of someday earning a living as a professional musician, the experience was a first. "I was shocked," he recalls. "Just absolutely shocked." On the police report of Malamud's arrest is a box in which the officer is asked to describe the "reaction of child." The officer wrote down "Disbelief."

Sitting handcuffed in the back of the squad car, "I tried to ask her [the officer] what I was being charged with," he says, and in response, she was "harsh, nasty," allegedly telling him "You don't ask me the questions; I ask you the questions." (The officer didn't return phone calls.)

Next came jail. Although Malamud was never actually put in the stir, the cops booked him, took his fingerprints, and sat him down on a bench in the corner with his hands still cuffed behind his back. His only relief from the boredom of waiting was listening to a hooker flirt with the cop on duty.

After about an hour, police drove Malamud to the Juvenile Intervention Facility, where, after convincing an interviewer that he wasn't suicidal or on drugs, he was told once more to wait. Finally his father showed up. Cary Malamud is an outspoken bear of a man with a bristling gray beard and a fierce look. At the time he was angry. "There was steam coming out of my ears. They called me at work and told me he had been arrested for trespassing on school property," he glowers. "I said, 'What do you mean? It's Monday morning. School is where he's supposed to be!'"

As soon as he picked up Matthew, father and son drove straight to the school, where they say that Dillard Principal John Kelly told them Matthew would be suspended for ten days for refusing to leave the classroom. According to the Malamuds, when they asked the principal about the T-shirt, he explained that some teachers found the word "hell" offensive. (Kelly refuses to comment on the incident.) Matthew served five days of his suspension, after which he was allowed to return to school.

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