Freedom of Screech

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.

Dillard's reputation is that of a school where the problems run more to rampaging violence than rampaging violinists. Located hard between railroad tracks and a shut-down Superfund site in a rough neighborhood north of Sunrise Boulevard near I-95, the sprawling campus has ranked among the most crime-ridden schools in the county. Four years ago, in an incident that led to the introduction of metal detectors in all Broward high schools, a Dillard student pulled a gun and shot an assistant principal after she suspended him for disrupting a class. "I'll give you something to suspend me for," he reportedly shouted before firing.

The violence hasn't abated much since then, students say. "Last semester I was sitting outside, and somebody came by and Maced me," recalls Crawford.

In a school that has struggled so hard with weapons and crime, Cary Malamud thinks it's ironic, at the least, that his son was handcuffed and frisked for wearing an inappropriate undergarment. The frisking especially galls him. "What did they think they were going to find? A contraband violin bow? A harmonica?"

But to the Malamuds, the heart of the issue is freedom of expression. Alan Ehrlich, a volunteer lawyer for the Broward County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, questions whether the school followed its own board's policy in this case: "Students have a right to be free of censorship within a framework of mutual respect."

In a letter to the school board attorney's office, Ehrlich maintained that the slogan, "while perhaps not in the best taste, is not even close to what our courts would define as obscene or pornographic." He went on to demand that the school system clear Matthew's record "in all respects, so that he does not find himself at some point in the future dealing with the results of his wearing a T-shirt to school."

School Board attorney Ed Marko says he hasn't had time to learn the facts of the case and wouldn't respond in the press if he had. But Ed Hardy, head of the special investigative unit of the school board, maintains that arrest for trespassing is a normal option for students who refuse to go to wherever they're told to go. While refusing to speak directly to the facts of the Malamud case, he says, "We cannot tolerate any interruption to the normal functioning of schools or classrooms."

Meanwhile Matthew could face some punishment from the legal system. Normally, in nonviolent juvenile cases where the defendant has no criminal record, the procedure is to divert the case from the criminal courts into a program in which a youth is allowed to avoid prosecution by performing community service and attending a lecture in which "he is taught the error of his ways," says Asst. State Attorney Martin Murphy.

Recently the Malamuds heard from a caseworker in the district attorney's juvenile division that Matthew was eligible for diversion. However, they say they're going to resist any sort of resolution that requires Matthew to admit any wrongdoing. Murphy says that, in general, if a defendant refuses diversion, then the case is kicked back to prosecutors who must make a determination whether to file charges.

That hasn't happened yet in the Malamud case. The Malamuds say they're ready to up the volume if the case goes to trial. "My son is not a criminal," says Cary Malamud.

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Paul Belden