Schools seek better behavior

January 08, 1995|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Sun Staff Writer

Three years and three studies later, Anne Arundel County schools are trying some different ways to improve students' behavior.

"I think we've been rather fortunate in this county," said Dr. Carol S. Parham, superintendent of schools. "But we couldn't continue to bury our heads in the sand. We need to be pro-active. We're getting more students who come to school bringing with them more issues . . . that we have to deal with."

Since fall 1990, the number of assaults, verbal threats and possession or use of weapons by students in schools has grown steadily.

Verbal threats rose system-wide from 15 in the 1990-1991 school year to 33 in 1992-1993, according to school figures. In the same period, physical assaults increased from 69 to 230 and weapons offenses from 40 to 118.

The issue was studied twice, starting in 1992, but the school system never acted on the recommendations of those committees. Last year, the Task Force on Student Discipline was formed, and after receiving its report in June, the eight-member school board ordered that action be taken.

"I can't speak to the past," said Dr. Parham of the previous studies. "But I am very dedicated to making sure we actually act upon reports. I'm not interested in anything that sits on a shelf."

The task force noted that students couldn't hope to meet standards if they weren't clear, so, administrators set the ground rules right after the students returned in the fall. A memo went out to students and parents explaining what behavior was expected.

Among the changes: alternatives to punitive discipline, a greater sharing of ideas among faculty members, and attacking the behavioral problem as early as elementary school.

Rose Davis, coordinator of safety and student discipline, explained that achieving a successful discipline program is often a case of balancing new approaches with traditional methods. ++ Ms. Davis is drawing upon 23 years' experience in Baltimore City schools, including her most recent assignment as an administrator at an alternative high school for students with behavioral problems.

"If punitive measures aren't working, then we need to try something different," Ms. Davis said. "If all you're doing is using punitive measures, there's no learning going on."

For example, often students are expelled or suspended after fights.

But in some cases, she said, having the students sit down with each other and parents to discuss the situation that led to the fight can be more beneficial.

Severe fights, such as one in September at Meade High in which an art teacher was injured and the librarian severely beaten, do call for more stringent -- and traditional -- disciplinary measures, she said.

"When I was a teen-ager, people fought their own battles, it was one on one and there were no weapons," Ms. Davis said. "Now, there's the factor of allegiance to a group. If one person is involved, they all become involved. And weapons add an air of authority."

Before Ms. Davis' arrival this fall, no one coordinated discipline or intervention programs in the school system. Now, Ms. Davis and Dr. Parham urge administrators and teachers to develop programs geared to their students' needs and share their success stories with their colleagues.

"We're trying to create an environment that fosters creative strategies," Dr. Parham said. "We're not mandating one solution for every school because what works in one school may not work in another. But our first and foremost responsibility is to provide a safe and secure environment in which students can learn."

Until this year, most of the county's programs to correct student behavior were aimed at middle and senior high school students.

But Dr. Karlie Everett, principal at Hillsmere Elementary School in Annapolis, said it's never too early to intervene with a misbehaving student.

In a pilot program at Hillsmere, students who misbehaved were offered an alternative to suspension: attending school for three hours on Saturday to make up classwork, receive counseling, and work with their parents on an agreement on how to improve their behavior.

It was the first time Saturday school had been tried at the elementary level.

The youngest student to participate was a kindergartner who would not sit still on the school bus and created a safety hazard.

"Children don't start acting inappropriately when they're older, there's always a history," said Renee Waters, a special education teacher at Hillsmere who came up with Saturday school while doing research for her master's degree. "In doing my research, it seemed that a lot of children who were misbehaving were repeat offenders. And some children were getting in trouble year after year at Hillsmere."

After one session at Saturday school, all but one of the students has stayed out of trouble.

The program has temporarily ended because the school's original $2,500 grant ran out. Dr. Everett said she's looking elsewhere for money to continue the program.

"We need to do this, because it works," Dr. Everett said. "We don't want our youngsters out of the classroom. We want them in the classroom where they can practice the right thing to do. On Saturdays we can focus attention on them individually. This isn't designed to be punitive, it's designed to be instructive."

Students at Annapolis High School took matters into their own hands in the fall because they said they were tired of petty quarrels, verbal abuse and fights interrupting the school week.

About 250 students spent a day at Sandy Point State Park to ponder the problem and solutions.

Their commitment to keeping violence -- food fights, pushing, shouting and fistfights -- out of school has paid off, said Joyce Smith, Annapolis High principal.

"Yesterday I heard two students talking, and they were angry with someone, and I said, 'You can't settle it here,' and they said, 'Oh, we wouldn't do that,' " Ms. Smith said. "They don't want violence in the school either."

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