Confrontation at Douglass

October 21, 1993

When Charles E. Silberman published his provocative 1970 analysis, "Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education," he had much to say about educational equality and failures of school reforms. But he did not even mention violence in schools. Yet today it is that atmosphere of violence -- along with guns and knives -- which is threatening to make systematic learning impossible in urban schools.

A city school proposal to close West Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School for two days so that teachers can be trained to deal with violence and unruly youngsters is the latest indication of that fact.

Closing Douglass for two days -- which may or may not happen -- might direct public attention to an increasingly serious problem of school violence. It is not limited to Douglass or to Baltimore City but is being felt throughout the metropolitan region. However, two days of self-defense training would be nothing more than a stopgap measure to build confidence among teachers who feel threatened on the job. In the end, Superintendent Walter Amprey has to redefine his policies toward troublemakers and disciplinary actions.

Since he became Baltimore City's superintendent more than two years ago, Dr. Amprey has often talked about his desire to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions, which he feels are used too much and often inappropriately. In brief, his attitude seems to be: "If your child talks back to you at home, would you kick him out of the house?"

Unfortunately, talking back to teachers is about the most innocent thing happening in today's schools. To protect the learning environment, teachers and students from chronic troublemakers, schools may be forced to begin using expulsion on an even larger scale.

The question then is what to do with the chronically disruptive and violent students who cannot cope in a normal school environment. They can hardly be allowed to run wild on the streets.

We have no ready-made solution. But perhaps an educational boot camp is in order. The alternative is that relatively few troublemakers will increasingly attempt to take over schools and disrupt normal learning processes. That is a specter that simply cannot be allowed to happen.

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