Last weekend, about 250 police officers swept through an area of perhaps 9 square miles in Southwest Baltimore. They arrested 50 people on drug charges, seized weapons -- ranging from handguns to sawed-off shotguns -- and confiscated some $100,000 in cash.
Lay a map showing the location of city schools over a map of the region swept in what the police called "Operation Southside." In the area, or bordering it, are several public schools.
Need there be more explanation for the upsurge in violence in many city schools? Of those arrested, some were students of the schools, some were parents and relatives of the area's students. Almost all were neighbors.
When we in the media report on the homicides, shootings and robberies in society, we seldom link them to violence in the schools. And when we report on waves of violence in education, as we did two weeks ago, we seldom trace the relationship between what happens in the schools and what happens in the neighborhoods that surround them. But the two are inseparable.
Fifty-three years ago, a top-ranking Baltimore school administrator commented that "placidity surrounds the city school system like a benediction." Over the next half-century, that benediction has become a curse.
The bursts of violence didn't occur suddenly in the '90s, as newcomers might infer from each new horror story. Twenty-two years ago tomorrow, for example, the city school superintendent spent the evening at a hospital with a young man shot on Thanksgiving eve at Edmondson High School.
Violence in schools is nothing superintendents can stop (though they can try to foster a climate in which violence is less likely to occur), but all eight city superintendents since 1960 have tried to sweep it under the rug, putting reports from security forces into roseate light, always reminding that 99.9 percent of the students aren't shooting each other in school.
Meanwhile, there have been endless task forces and commissions, many of them set up by teachers concerned for their own safety. The commissions always recommend the same things: Separate the troublemakers from the vast majority. Establish what are now known as "time-out rooms" in schools. Establish what were called "regional adjustment centers" when they were recommended by a task force in 1971. Reduce the size of high schools and middle schools. Virtually none of these recommendations has been carried out.
So what has changed?
Karl Boone, president of the Public School Teachers Association 20 years ago and now principal of Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore, believes what has changed is the quality of violence, not its quantity. Mary Louise Brown, principal of Northwestern High School, says almost the same thing.
They have a point. Twenty-five years ago, some of the violence in city schools was attributable to restless youths protesting a war and protesting authority. Twenty years ago, some of it was attributable to the tension of racial change at schools like Northern and Southern highs and Francis Scott Key Junior High. Most of that is gone now, of course, as the schools have become more segregated.
Today it's the availability of drugs and guns -- and the knowledge that young people will kill at the drop of a hat -- that scares the wits out of people in school. It was Charles Dickens who said of small boys, "I've had experience with them, and on the whole I've found them to be a bad lot." Today, they're not only a bad lot; they've got an arsenal to prove it.
And something else is new -- or newer. Elementary schools in many Baltimore neighborhoods are oases in the violent deserts where they stand.
It's not accurate to portray them as chaotic armed camps, as some do who never visit them. Indeed, they are the safest places in their communities, places where young people can find a home that's warm and comfortable, get a free breakfast and lunch, even find acceptance and love -- not to mention an education.
On the opening day of school, the mayor, superintendent and an entourage usually tour a few schools. This year, one of the stops was Tench Tilghman Elementary on North Patterson Avenue in the heart of another area "swept" in a police drug raid last summer.
Principal Betty Turner and her assistant, Daphne Whittington, preside over this oasis with loving authority. In one classroom, a visitor found nine youngsters with a teacher and aide.
"These are all kids with learning problems," said the teacher.
"Well, it's split about three ways. Three of them were poisoned by lead paint, three are victims of fetal alcohol syndrome and three were crack babies."
NORTE DAME, LOYOLA TO COOPERATE
Look for a new era of cooperation between the College of Notre Dame and Loyola College of Maryland, now that the neighboring colleges on North Charles Street are under new leadership.
The two schools have had a chilly relationship for years, their joint library notwithstanding. But now Sister Rosemarie Nassif of Notre Dame and the Rev. Harold E. Ridley of Loyola are talking. There had been some melting: Loyola education students do their internships at Notre Dame, Notre Dame physics majors take upper-division courses at Loyola, and students from the two drama departments have established the "Charles Street Players."
Sister Rosemarie says she hopes for more cooperative ventures -- and that a joint committee will be established to plan them.