Panel to address school behavior

October 18, 1994|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Sun Staff Writer

Almost everywhere Stuart Berger goes, someone complains about behavior and discipline.

"I think there are a lot of teachers who believe that the behavior of students is not very good. And they're probably right," the Baltimore County school superintendent said.

Parents, too, registered their worries in a countywide survey last spring, listing behavior right behind "quality of education," their top concern.

Now they'll have a chance to do something about it by participating in the work of a high-level panel chaired by retired county police chief Cornelius J. Behan.

The Committee on Student Behavior, with an executive committee chosen by Mr. Behan and 30 others selected by Dr. Berger, will open a telephone hot line and post office box this week so that teachers, parents, students and citizens can contribute information.

Phone calls will be answered in the Woodlawn police precinct by contractual workers who are not employed by the school system, so that callers can remain anonymous, if they wish.

"The committee will be successful only with the cooperation and involvement of all concerned," Mr. Behan wrote in a letter to school employees, parents, students and county residents.

"Through the work of the committee and the efforts that follow, the Baltimore County public schools will have the opportunity to prevent many of the concerns and fears that plague other large school systems."

In an interview, Mr. Behan said that "This is probably a pretty safe school system." But the trend toward violence in schools is "a national epidemic" that spans behavior ranging from verbal assault to carrying or using weapons, he said.

The issue has many principals concerned. At Patapsco High, Principal Barbara Russell said she has tried peer mediation and conflict resolution programs, with some success. But her school "still hasn't broken the back of violence as the way to solve problems. I'm still not happy with the number of kids who are referred to the office for fighting," she said.

At Catonsville High, Principal Don Mohler deals with fights by calling the police -- a tactic he calls "very, very effective" and, hence, not one he has to use much anymore. With traditional problems, such as insubordination, he said he and his staff are working on a "slow but steady pace toward civility."

Ms. Russell said she separates discipline problems into four categories: truancy; violence such as fighting; negative behavior, such as carrying weapons even if they're not used; and chronic )) disruption by students that interferes with classwork.

She said Patapsco and most other schools see all those problems in varying patterns. Sometimes students will have two fights a week, and then weeks will go by with no fights at all.

The committee of parents, students, teachers and concerned citizens is looking at five areas: students and families, policies and procedures, community interaction, values and faculty, administration and staff.

Co-chairman Sheldon Greenberg, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said he expects the panel's recommendations to be "realistic and hard-hitting. We don't want a report that [only] spouts philosophy."

Mr. Behan and Mr. Greenberg said the superintendent has given the committee a free hand. Only one school administrator, Assistant Superintendent Richard Milbourne, is on the executive committee.

"He gave us carte blanche to proceed [and said] come back to me with your findings," said Mr. Greenberg, who is also director of the Police Executive Leadership Program at Hopkins. "That is both innovative and gutsy on his part. It shows appropriate risk-taking."

Also on the executive committee are Joseph McGowan, special assistant to the county executive, and Kal Martensen, former assistant to the county police chief.

Those who want to write to the panel should address mail to Cornelius J. Behan, Chairman, Committee on Student Behavior, P.O. Box 42078, Baltimore 21284.

The telephone hot line will be open from Thursday through Nov. 11 at (410) 887-6834. Hours will be 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.

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