Violence in schools on the rise Panel created to study discipline

July 22, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

In the past school year, seven Carroll County students were suspended for bringing a weapon to school.

The year before, two guns were among the weapons confiscated in county high schools.

The number of fights went up this year: There were a record 399 suspensions for fighting, compared with an average of about 355 students a year for the previous five years, said Richard Simmons, a pupil-personnel worker for Carroll County public schools.

Yesterday, Superintendent R. Edward Shilling created a discipline study committee to review current procedures and to tell teachers and principals how those practices can be more effective.

The committee is to complete its work in May, Mr. Shilling said.

"If we can't create an environment where kids and teachers are safe, then a lot of good things, instructionally, cannot happen," he said.

"We're not interested in seeing this school system replicate some of the problems other school systems are having."

For the past two years, teachers have been asking Mr. Shilling and the school board to address what they fear is increasing student violence and disrespect.

Carroll County Education Association President Cynthia Cummings said teachers are increasingly concerned about safety.

"Children are bringing weapons to school," she said. "It happened at my school several years ago at Charles Carroll [Elementary]."

While weapons are the most dramatic example, a "total lack of respect" is the most prevalent problem, said Marie Bantner, a fifth-grade teacher at William Winchester Elementary School.

"The problems that used to be in middle school are filtering to elementary school," she said. "The lack of respect, the repeated occurrence of the same kind of thing over and over."

She said sending students to the principal's office is counter-productive, because they fall further behind in class, but teachers have few alternatives.

No support for teachers

Mr. Shilling has said part of the problem is parents who are so concerned with defending their children that they don't support the teacher with strengthened discipline at home.

Mrs. Bantner said parents usually at least "pay lip service" when she calls with concerns.

"I don't think we can just place all the blame on parents," she said. "The peer groups children are involved with have a lot to do with it."

Middle- and high-school suspensions for insubordination or disruption have gone up steadily from 382 in 1991, to 451 in 1992, to 514 in 1993, Mr. Simmons said. Those are in addition to the suspensions for fighting.

For the past two years, about a quarter of the high school insubordination-disruption suspensions have been served out in the "Saturday for Success" program, an alternative to suspensions in which the student misses school. Instead, the student goes to school for an extra day on Saturday.

The high schools also offer the program for attendance or smoking violations, but not for fighting.

Along with Mr. Simmons, the 24 other members of the new committee will include teachers, principals, guidance counselors, a teaching assistant, three PTA members and three people from business and human services.

The chairman will be Edwin Davis, director of pupil services.

Changing population

Mr. Simmons said the county's population is changing from rural and agrarian.

"Those who are coming are from a different background, whatever that means," he said. "Those coming here are out of more urban situations."

For anyone who finds it alarming that elementary children are showing more disrespect, Mr. Simmons has scarier statistics that show more referrals of children under 3 years old whose parents seek help because the toddlers are "out of control," he said.

In a program that screens infants and toddlers for educational handicaps, about 5 percent of the children had behavioral, rather than educational, handicaps from 1989 through 1991. In 1992 that went up to 6 percent, and in 1993 to 9 percent, Mr. Simmons said.

"Often it's because of lack of parent discipline, alienation of affection -- kids aren't being played with. They're placed in front of the television for supervision. That's not the way kids want to be handled."

As they get older, he said, problems get worse.

He described two students that he worked with this year.

A seventh-grade girl was "out of control," with very little supervision from her parents.

"In absolute disarray and chaos, she cusses a teacher out, goes home and runs away," Mr. Simmons said. When she was found, she was placed through the Carroll County Department of Social Services for comprehensive evaluation at a psychiatric hospital.

Another case, a seventh-grade boy, transferred from out of state last year.

"This is a 15-year-old sent to us as a sixth-grader," Mr. Simmons said. "His childhood abuse was profound from his mother and stepfathers.

"He attacks another kid in school, totally unprovoked," he said. After a conference with Mr. Simmons, the boy began to receive outside counseling from a local private agency.

But the boy continued to attack students and to refuse to work in class. Once, he brought a knife to school.

Weapons confiscated

Mr. Simmons said an average of 25 to 30 weapons are confiscated by school officials each year. Sometimes, however, those are "a pen knife from Cub Scouts," he said.

Guns are not common, he said. He doesn't know of any cases in the past school year, but remembers three from the 1991-1992 school year.

In the two high school incidents, the students with the guns "talked in terms of 'I'm going to get somebody after school,' " he said.

In a case in April 1992 at Westminster East Middle School, an eighth-grade student brought his father's .357 Magnum pistol to school, although not with the intention of fighting or defending himself.

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