Fear Of Violence Looms In County Schools' Hallways

March 29, 1992|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff writer

When the ninth-grade boy got ready to go to school at Chesapeake High on the morning of Feb. 7, he packed his books and a loaded .22-caliber handgun.

And when administrators caught him with the gun at the end of the school day, he told them he was afraid, that he'd been threatened by two other students. He had not told his teachers or principal about the threats. He figured he'd protect himself by bringing a handgun from home.

The boy walked around school all day with the handgun tucked intothe pocket of his jacket. He said he walked in fear. At some county public schools, many students share the same fears.

Youngsters at some county high schools say they come to class every day fearing a fight awaits them in the corridors. Disputes triggered at home, in theshopping mall or the housing project play out in school more violently than ever before, by students more heavily armed than ever before.The epidemic of violence that has been infecting school systems across the country is striking here, even in schools once thought immune to such problems.

School officials say the trouble is being causedby a small number of students, and that no schools are completely insulated from an increase in fighting, often over status items like expensive athletic jackets and shoes.

"We're really shocked in this community," said Broadneck High School Principal Lawrence Knight. "Wehad no indication of the level of savagery that could be committed by one youngster against another."

Knight referred to one former student's arrest in the stabbing death of another former student on a street in Cape St. Claire last month.

"Violence," Knight said. "is increasing in the schools and away from the schools. It's in their communities, in their favorite gathering places, in the malls.

"We're looking around now to see what other time bombs are about to go off. There may be another student at the snapping point. With the availability of weapons, a student could be carrying an Uzi or an automaticweapon just to get back at somebody."

The 15-year-old boy caught with the handgun at Chesapeake High last month was expelled and charged by county police with illegal possession of a weapon. Administrators searched the boy and confiscated the gun after they got a tip fromanother student. More and more, public school officials find themselves searching students and confiscating weapons.

During the 1988-1989 school year, school officials confiscated 32 weapons. The figure jumped 20 percent the next school year to 39 weapons. Last school year, 40 weapons, including guns, knives and the martial arts weapon numchuks, were taken from students.

This year, in January alone, the most recent month for which statistics were available, 17 weapons were confiscated and 21 physical assaults reported, said Huntley Cross, a special assistant to the superintendent who investigates such cases. Physical assaults serious enough to result in suspensions rose 10 percent in 1989-1990, to 176, then dropped last school year to 169.

Even more chilling than the number of incidents is the intensity of the violence, several teachers and administrators said.

"There's definitely an increase in severity," said Cross. "The kind of fights we used to have in high school are not the kind of fights they have now. Now, when they get into a fight, there is a definite intent to hurt the other person, to do physical harm."

Tom Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, said teachers at some schools fear for their safety and for their students'.

"Teachers are worried about the increase in incidents of students coming to school with weapons," he said. "It used to be just fists, now there'sweapons. It used to be two students (fighting), now it's 10. . . . Five years ago, if there were 200 cases, maybe 10 percent involved weapons. Now, it's maybe 30 or 40 percent. And that's scary."

Many students face the fear every day. They live with the threat of violence. They understand that violence has become a way of solving problems,a way of life.

"If someone keeps in your face, you get sick of it. You have to do something. You have to knock them down," said Candace Clark, an Annapolis Middle School eighth-grader.

Fights begin over verbal insults, destruction of property or boyfriend-girlfriend rivalries. Often at the slightest provocation, students will gather friends and relatives for a fight to get even, students say.

"All youhave to say is 'mother' or 'father' and the fighting starts," said Annapolis Middle School Principal Kevin Dennehy. "They rally around and egg each other on."

Many students find this behavior is encouraged at home, said North County High School Principal William Wentworth. "Kids are being told if someone says something you don't like, you don't have to take it. You can hit them, punch them."

At Southern High School, tension between a group of black students and a group ofwhite students resulted in four brawls on school property in October.

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