Growing violence troubles schools

November 14, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Mike Bowler contributed to this article.

A Harlem Park Middle School teacher seethes as she recalls her last day in the classroom, when four sixth-graders beat her, sending her to the hospital in an ambulance. Thirteen months later, she still undergoes therapy for post-traumatic stress syndrome; still feels the pain in her neck, her back and her knees; still wakes at night in terror; still bemoans what she and many other teachers call a breakdown in discipline.

Across town, at Patterson High School a few weeks ago, a 17-year-old boy went on a rampage, screaming profanities, spraying a classroom with a fire extinguisher, hitting a teacher with a chair, hurling a bottle at a school police officer.

At Edmondson-Westside High, a class was halted abruptly last week when a senior was arrested after allegedly bringing a loaded automatic handgun and more than 60 vials of crack cocaine to school.

The violence -- a reflection of the violence that pervades some city neighborhoods -- has become alarmingly routine in some of the toughest of Baltimore's 182 public schools.

Consider:

* Reported gun incidents soared to the highest level in a decade during 1993-1994, according to newly released statistics. These incidents -- assaults, robberies and possession of firearms -- rose 42.5 percent, from 47 in 1992-1993 to 67 last school year, the highest since 1983-1984, when school police reported 122 gun cases.

* Reported assaults with deadly weapons, including guns and knives, nearly doubled, from 56 to 104.

* Armed and unarmed attacks on students, teachers, other staff and school police officers climbed 14.7 percent, to 1,387. No fewer than 302 teachers and other staffers and 63 school police officers were assaulted in 1993-1994.

* Arrests -- for everything from disorderly conduct to assaults with deadly weapons -- rose 7 percent, from 2,609 to 2,790.

The school system attributes the increases, in part, to better reporting resulting from more awareness, anti-violence campaigns, community meetings and a 24-hour hot line to report offenses.

But critics, including the teachers union, lawmakers, some school staffers and school police, call the city's school security and discipline inadequate and say schools are growing more dangerous.

"It's almost beyond control. But it's one of those things we don't want to think about and we don't want to talk about," said Councilman Carl Stokes, chairman of the Education and Human Resources Committee. "So it proliferates. But we need to put it on the table and deal with it."

Mr. Stokes long has advocated smaller classes and now calls for more school police and random searches with metal detectors. He predicts that school safety will become a key issue in next year's city elections. "You ask parents about their biggest concerns in the schools, and eight of 10 of them will say class sizes and safety," said Mr. Stokes, a 2nd District Democrat.

Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, who has repeatedly called school safety one of the key measures by which he and the school system should be judged, declined to discuss the issue. "I don't trust you," he told a reporter, criticizing the "negative focus" of coverage.

Critics accuse his administration of refusing to acknowledge the prevalence of violence or to take enough concrete action to stem it. Some teachers and school police officers say Dr. Amprey has insisted on playing down or ignoring incidents in hopes of avoiding negative publicity. They also complain that he has refused to remove or provide alternative schooling for most of the more violent students.

Nationwide, increasing school violence in urban as well as some suburban and rural districts has prompted tighter security, including use of metal detectors, random searches, more police officers and camera surveillance.

But Dr. Amprey, now in his fourth year as superintendent, has repeatedly resisted such measures, saying they would do little to make schools safer. His administration has instead emphasized prevention efforts such as conflict mediation and high-profile anti-violence campaigns.

In his first year as schools chief, Dr. Amprey responded to the violence that has beset city schools for more than two decades by convening a "safe schools summit" when he asked students what they needed to feel safe and secure. Conflict mediation, anti-violence campaigns and the hot line grew out of the summit.

Last month, the district began its latest safety effort, the first of several "safe haven networks" in East Baltimore. Homes and churches along the routes to schools, each identified with a blue-and-yellow sign and smiling face, offer shelter and protection to children who feel threatened.

Annabelle Sher, who heads the district's Safe Schools Office, also noted that Baltimore has several partnerships with businesses, colleges and organizations such as the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, all targeting violence in schools.

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