To Improve Schools, Make Them Feel Safer

PETER A. JAY

June 13, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE. — Havre de Grace -- With the schools closing for the summer this is a good time to consider how to make them better. For starters, we might try to make them feel safer.

Especially in urban school systems like Baltimore's, this is vital. A successful school ought to feel safe, as well as be safe. It ought to be a secular sanctuary, where reasonable quiet and order prevail, not simply an extension of the tumultuous life of the streets. But achieving such an atmosphere isn't easy.

It's worth noting here that order in the schools (feeling safe) shouldn't be confused with "security" (being safe). Despite the occasional well-publicized horror story -- a second-grader with a gun, a kid shot for his jacket -- security in the schools isn't nearly as bad as is popularly imagined, and as news reports usually imply.

"It's shoot or be shot," screeches a USA Today headline over a story describing American schools as war zones. The story, using a few unconfirmable but potent factoids provided by a handgun-control organization, says 100,000 kids take guns to school every day, and another 160,000 stay home each day "out of fear." That's a pretty violent picture.

But look at the hard figures from Baltimore. There are about 110,000 students enrolled in 178 schools. In 1983-84, there were 122 reports of incidents involving firearms on school property. That was the worst year of the decade. After that, the number of firearms incidents dropped each year until 1990-91, when there were 22 reported. Last year the number climbed again, to 44.

Of those 44 cases, 24 involved possession of a firearm, but not its actual or threatened use. Thirteen cases involved assault. Seven involved robbery. This is nasty stuff, of course, but it is not an indication of schools in chaos. In 1991-92, the "serious" incidents reported to the Baltimore school police averaged fewer than two per day, system-wide. The outside world should be so safe.

What were those incidents? Some were truly serious, others weren't. The vast majority, 791 cases during the year, were assaults. These can and do include fights of the non-lethal sort that flare in any high school. If there is a complaint, a report is filed.

In addition to the 24 firearms cases, there were 112 reports of students carrying other deadly weapons.

There were also about 400 "miscellaneous" incidents, which school officials say mostly involved possession of prohibited electronic pagers. These are, quite accurately, seen as drug-pushing equipment. But interestingly, many of the pagers confiscated in the schools don't work. They are being carried as status symbols only, and reflect a social problem rather than a law-enforcement one.

Most big-city school systems have had their own police forces for more than 25 years. New York has 3,000 school security officers. Baltimore has 89, with 104 positions authorized. Here in bucolic Harford County, the school security force is one person. Prince George's County has about 50; they're called -- only a school system could have thought of this -- "investigative counselors."

School administrators love to tinker with their security forces. In Baltimore, Walter Amprey, the superintendent, is currently in the process of pushing out Larry Burgan, the chief of the school police. The superintendent has said that the school police make too many arrests.

Probably what's really involved here is old-fashioned majoritarian politics. In Baltimore, the school system is predominantly black. The superintendent and most of his top staff are black. Mr. Burgan, whose nominally civil-service job is nothing if not politically sensitive, is white. Q.E.D., and sayonara.

That said, there's really no reason why the superintendent shouldn't pick his own person to head the school police. But when he does, he ought to remember that while good security doesn't guarantee good schools, the lack of security guarantees chaos.

Right now, in Baltimore, school security is generally pretty good, but order depends largely on the leadership and determination of each school's principal and staff. Right now, orderly city schools can be found within a few blocks of schools where bedlam reigns. The difference has absolutely nothing to do with school security, and everything to do with administration and leadership.

A school security officer can confiscate a weapon or apprehend a brick-tossing vandal, but can't legitimately be a disciplinarian. Compliance with dress codes, with language codes, with other accepted standards of civil behavior -- these cannot be enforced by police.

But if those standards aren't enforced, or aren't established at all, that particular school has failed. It has let down its students, their parents and the community. And when that occurs, as it too often does, the school-security forces are faced with a hopeless task. If they're expected to provide order as well as security, they might as well be prison guards.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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