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Published on Friday, May 5, 2000 in the Boston Globe
Profile In Arrogance:
Congressman Tom Lantos Vs
Injured 13-Year Old Boy
by Susan Milligan
 
WASHINGTON - The wheels of government were turning slowly, as ever, on Wednesday when one of them rolled right over 13-year-old Owen Sanderson's left foot.

Sanderson and his eighth-grade classmates from the Florence Sawyer School in Bolton, Mass., were crossing the plaza in front of the US Capitol when a California congressman drove over the boy's foot, then left the scene without leaving his car to see whether the boy was hurt, witnesses said yesterday.

Representative Tom Lantos was driving slowly and caught the youth's foot under his right front tire, sending the boy to the pavement screaming in pain, the boy and his teachers said in interviews.

But while several horrified teachers and the principal shouted at Lantos to stop, the California Democrat from San Mateo sat rigidly, staring straight ahead and refusing to get out of his white Ford Taurus, which carried US Congress plates, the witnesses said.

''The first thing I heard was Owen screaming,'' said Ken Tucker, principal of the Worcester-area school. ''Owen's foot was pinned under the car.''

Lantos, 72, finally reversed slightly, freeing Owen's foot and ankle, and drove off without checking on Owen's condition, said Tucker and several teachers.

Lantos paid a $25 fine after being issued a ticket for ''failure to pay full time and attention,'' said Lieutenant Dan Nichols, spokesman for the Capitol Police, adding that the investigation is closed.

Lantos said he had no idea the boy had been hurt.

''I was driving to my office. ... There was a typical spring mob of tourists and kids and so on,'' Lantos said yesterday in an interview. ''One of the kids, horsing around, not looking or something, jumped in front of the car, stumbled, then got up and walked away.''

Lantos said he was then ushered forward by a Capitol Police officer, and he drove off - thinking nothing had happened. Learning yesterday that the boy had been injured, Lantos said he would invite Owen's parents to Washington for lunch.

The boy is now in a cast and using a wheelchair. Owen's X-rays show no broken bones, but there is a danger that his growth plate - the part of the bone involved in the growth of his leg - could have been damaged, said the school nurse, Darlene Perkins, who is on the trip.

Doctors at Children's Hospital in Washington said Owen must undergo new X-rays in seven to 10 days to determine if serious damage was done. The boy, who ski races and plays soccer, could be in an air cast - a type of plastic brace - for four to six weeks, said art teacher Joyce Malin, who accompanied Owen to the hospital.

Owen said he was walking across the crosswalk toward the Capitol steps about 9 a.m. Wednesday, when ''I remember a car creeping slowly toward me, and then I fell down.

''I felt a grab on my ankle and my left leg, and I just fell,'' Owen said, sitting at the food court in Union Station, where the class was dining yesterday after a morning visit to the Washington Monument and Museum of American History.

''I was trying to push the car off me and it wouldn't move. It hurt really bad when it was under the wheel,'' Owen said.

The boy, slender and red-haired with a shy smile, said he does not harbor bad feelings toward Lantos or his wife Annette, who was a passenger in the car.

''I'm not really mad at them,'' Owen said. But ''it's disappointing that they didn't get out and say, `Are you OK?' I just feel bad he didn't call to apologize.''

Owen's teachers and principal, however, are dismayed at what they see as insensitivity and arrogance by a government official.

''If he had stopped and spoken to us, we would have had a much different response to this,'' said Malin, the art teacher. ''It's called human decency.''

''With kids, there's this sense of fairness,'' said Steven Grant, a math and science teacher. ''We try to teach them about accountability.''

Youngsters ''learn too often in life that if you have money and power, you're above the law,'' said Perkins, the school nurse. ''That's not the way it's supposed to be.''

Reached in Bolton, Owen's mother, Dee Sanderson, declined to comment on the episode other than to say she was pleased with the response of the teachers and principal.

The students were on their way to hear their local representative, Martin Meehan, a Lowell Democrat, give an informal chat about government on the House steps.

Meehan said he did not witness the event. ''I heard a commotion, so I went over,'' he said. Then Meehan realized Owen was part of the class he was supposed to address.

''Owen's a great kid, very courageous,'' Meehan said, declining to comment on his colleague, Lantos.

The teachers, Tucker, and the tour guide disputed Lantos's assertion that he did not know Owen was hurt. Lantos ''was asked several times to get out of the car by myself and the teachers,'' Tucker said. ''He was told, `You hit a kid and you need to stop.'

''He was trying to drive through a crowd of kids, was what he was doing. Why or how, I don't know,'' Tucker said. ''He didn't roll down his window. He made no offer to get out of the car.''

Laura Friend, an English teacher who was among those chaperoning the 68 students, said she raced toward the Taurus and screamed at Lantos through a half-open window.

''I was saying, `Stop, stop, stop! Back up, back up, back up!' He didn't look at me. He didn't even take his hands off the wheel or anything,'' Friend said.

Tour guide Bob McManus said, ''I don't think he even turned his head. It's appalling. You couldn't believe your eyes.''

When it appeared Lantos might not stop, Tucker said, he stepped in front of the car. A Capitol Police officer twice told the principal to move out of the way or he would be arrested, Tucker and several teachers recounted.

''The officer said, `Look at his license plates. He's a congressman. If we need to get in touch with him, we can find him if need be,''' Friend recalled.

Nichols, of the Capitol Police, said there was a ''misunderstanding'' between Lantos and the officer. Lantos thought he was being waved on to continue to his office, but the officer was only urging him to come forward out of the crowd, where he could stop more safely, Nichols said.

Owen, along with his schoolmates and teachers, gave extensive reports to the Capitol Police. But the youth said he is more concerned with ''getting this cast off'' than getting into a dispute with Lantos. ''I know it was an accident,'' Owen said. ''Maybe next time he should apologize. It would be a nice thing.''

Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company

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