Baltimore's schools are far safer for students than the streets

THE EDUCATION BEAT

April 25, 1995|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

In one of her first major campaign thrusts last week, challenger Mary Pat Clarke lobbed several political bombs at Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Among other things, Mrs. Clarke declared that "under the Schmoke administration, schools are more violent and dangerous for children and teachers."

That may be provable if you look at school police reports. In most categories, school crime has increased during Mr. Schmoke's watch. Nationally, crime in schools is a major problem. Nearly 3 million crimes occur in or near schools every year -- 16,000 a day, one every six seconds. A single beating or shooting of a student or teacher is one too many.

But if you're caught in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods during a school day and feel the need for a secure place to escape, head for a school. You'll probably have to ring a doorbell, but once inside, you'll be in a place that's statistically safer than the street you've escaped -- and safer than the homes of the children who attend the school.

Far from being cesspools of disruption where strangers have to watch their backs at every moment, schools are among the safest places in any community. Incidents of rape, robbery and assault are twice as likely to occur at home than in school, according to the U.S. Justice Department. And incidents of child abuse are infinitely more probable at home.

In city schools last year, according to police reports, there were 53 robberies per 100,000 students. In all of the city -- in its schools, homes and streets combined -- there were 1,611 robberies per 100,000 people. (This fails to take into account that schools are open only six hours a day for half the days of the year, but the contrast is striking even if the school crime rate is multiplied by eight.)

In fact, schools, particularly elementary schools, are havens for their students, places where they escape the violence of the streets and get two free meals a day -- not to mention the respect and love many lack at home.

The schools are the equivalent of embassies in troubled foreign countries. Those who enter are comforted by the sounds and symbols of "home," and the principals and teachers, like diplomats or priests in the confessional, know full well the crimes and criminals that are so shockingly close to their students.

Enter Tench Tilghman Elementary School in East Baltimore, and you immediately get the feeling of sanctuary. The school, warm and colorful, is at the edge of a cold and colorless community north of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Just before school opened last fall, police raids to the west pushed drug dealers into the neighborhood. Shootings are commonplace; Principal Elizabeth Turner estimates 80 percent of the students have witnessed gunfire or know intimately someone who has.

Ms. Turner and her assistant, Daphne Whittington, know that Tilghman doesn't exist in a vacuum. When someone in the community is shot in a dispute over drugs, it is bound to spill over into the school, not as violence but as violence's emotional aftershock. More subtle crimes, such as abuse and neglect, also spill over. And so does misbehavior that results from children's inability to cope with the monumental troubles in their lives.

Tilghman fights back, not by punishing or imposing "one-strike-and-you're-out" policies. Rather it reaches out and educates. It does what little it can to address the real problems of its students.

There's the Crisis Room, presided over by a remarkable woman named Nina Goodman. Children who are out of control are sent to Ms. Goodman for calming and counseling. Ms. Goodman asks for the worst cases, gives out her home telephone number and thinks nothing of responding to an emergency at midnight Saturday.

Tilghman has programs to teach children about violence,

including the violence of guns. "Guns are a part of our community, and we can't pretend that they aren't," Ms. Turner said. A film crew from the Tokyo Broadcasting System visited the school last winter to observe the anti-gun curriculum and talk to students. The Japanese wrote to the school afterward to say they were shocked at the prevalence of violence in East Baltimore but amazed at the insights of the Tilghman students.

Humor helps, too. Ms. Goodman and teacher Barbara J. Watties use a set of hand puppets to make points about some of the neighborhood characters, like "Recovering Reggie," who tells students: "I used to smoke that old cocaine, but I'm recovering from all that now."

The staff at Tench Tilghman doesn't believe that its approach to crime and violence is "coddling." Neither does Irwin A. Hyman, a professor of school psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia who has been observing and writing about school violence for 30 years.

"We should be more concerned about crime in the home than about crime in schools," he said last week. "Yet the punitive rhetoric we hear just makes things worse.

"Sometimes teachers make things worse because they don't know how to deal with disruptive behavior. They want someone to come along and move the troublemakers out. But teachers can escalate violence by the way they approach a potential crisis. The only long-lasting solution to school violence is communitywide and oriented to prevention."

'Party-school' binges

The Harvard School of Public Health recently surveyed 720 freshmen at 13 colleges identified as "party schools."

The survey found that more than half of all freshmen at the colleges went on a drinking binge within their first week of school, and they binged despite the fact that 41 percent said they never drank heavily in high school.

Harvard did not identify the party schools. According to the Harvard Gazette, which reported the study, the colleges insisted on anonymity as a condition for cooperating.

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