Weary of thuggish pupils, teachers urge more alternative schools

March 09, 1995|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

After graphically describing attacks by students, Baltimore teachers pleaded with state legislators yesterday to make the city expand its alternative school program for disruptive youths.

City teacher Winston Morris told a rapt audience in the House Ways and Means Committee how four sixth-grade girls beat and kicked her senseless during a social studies class. Mrs. Morris, 54, said the girls knocked her glasses from her face and tore out a clump of her hair.

"There was a pounding in the back of the head, over and over and over," she recalled, rhythmically swinging her fist in the air to illustrate the blows.

Mrs. Morris said the 1993 attack came after she had tried to discipline a student for eating potato chips during a class at Harlem Park Middle School.

She said her prime assailant was later transferred to another school -- where she beat up another student -- and then was transferred to a third school.

"We can no longer tolerate or allow students to run our schools," Mrs. Morris told the committee. "I strongly urge that our legislature not only consider, but pass this initial legislation in an effort to help not only the teachers and our serious students, but our students who are crying for help."

The measure at issue, House Bill 970, would establish an alternative learning center for students who assault a teacher or another student, bring a weapon on school property or commit a crime.

Baltimore already has three such alternative schools, but the city teachers union, which helped draft the bill, says those facilities don't provide enough space or resources for disruptive students.

Betty R. Pitt, a lobbyist for the Federation of Maryland Teachers and the Baltimore Teachers Union, said they envision an alternative school that could accommodate 1,000 to 1,200 students. By comparison, one of the city's three alternative schools, Woodbourne Academy in West Baltimore, has room for 60 students -- and under city guidelines, often has served fewer.

Baltimore does not need state legislation to create an alternative learning center. Del. Tony E. Fulton, the bill's sponsor, said he introduced the measure because he was frustrated that the city had not done so despite repeated requests from him and union representatives.

pTC "I've exhausted all reasonable remedies," said Mr. Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat.

CCity school officials did not oppose the bill yesterday, but listed several concerns in written testimony. Walter G. Amprey, the city schools superintendent, called the bill "well-intended" but said that only students who had committed multiple offenses should be sent to the center.

Dr. Amprey also said that, to be effective, such a center must have a strong academic program as well as social workers, guidance counselors and psychologists.

"The combination of quality teachers, quality curriculum and a strong support staff will enable this program to make a real difference in addressing concerns about violence in our schools rather than simply remove and punish those who participate in it," Dr. Amprey said.

Kevin O'Keeffe, director of government relations for the city schools, said cost is also an issue. The state Department of Fiscal Services estimates that, were the center limited to just 250 students, it would cost approximately $3.3 million a year to run.

School violence has been a growing concern in Baltimore in recent years. For instance, reported incidents involving guns -- including assaults and robberies -- increased from 47 during the 1992-1993 school year to 67 last school year.

The school system has attributed some of the increase to better reporting, but the teachers union, some school staffers and school police say discipline is inadequate and classrooms are growing more dangerous.

Despite concerns about the costs of a center for disruptive youth, teachers say the public can either pay now for education or later for incarceration.

"No matter what it costs, we can't afford not to do it," said Ms. Pitt.

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