Report attacks juvenile violence School system urged to battle rising crime with money, training

March 31, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Howard County schools need to increase spending, staffing and training to fight the county's alarming rise in youth violence, says a new study on disruptive young people in the county.

The school system also should work more closely with other agencies in the community and consider starting an alternative program to educate expelled students and other youths who aren't in school, the report concludes.

"Our biggest concern is not the fact that we have a violent school system but trends we see in the school system and the community," said Donald McBrien, the schools' director of pupil services and chairman of the committee.

"Police statements suggest an increase in adolescent and childhood crime and we see all sorts of symbols that suggest the community is different than it was five years ago," he said.

The study -- which was presented to the Howard County school board Thursday night -- is the latest salvo in what has become a countywide battle against increasing juvenile crime in Howard.

Howard police are poised to unveil a set of anti-gang initiatives next month, and two officers and a sergeant were assigned this week as school liaisons to establish a greater police presence in all of the county's high schools.

Meanwhile, Howard prosectors have adopted a tougher approach to violent youth offenses and have been spending time in classrooms throughout the county educating students about the criminal justice system.

The report presented to the board last week resulted from an appointed committee's yearlong examination of student violence and disruptive behavior in Howard schools.

That committee was made up of school officials, teachers, parents and representatives from such groups as the county state's attorney's office, Police Department, Department of Juvenile Services and Health Department.

The school system's decision to conduct the study and the committee's subsequent conclusions were prompted by trends in Howard showing a dangerous rise in youth violence, officials said.

"While the schools are safe, there is a concern about our vulnerability down the line," said Associate Superintendent James R. McGowan, who ordered the study.

The number of suspensions for violent behavior in Howard schools rose by 34.7 percent from the 1993-1994 school year to )) 1994-1995, while enrollment increased less than 5 percent, the report says. Violent behavior leading to suspensions ranged from oral threats and theft to physical attacks and weapons possession.

The numbers of robberies and aggravated assaults committed by youths also rose from 1994 to 1995, according to the most recent county crime statistics.

Gang activity is increasing and "getting more serious," warned Maj. Mark Paterni, who was the county police's representative on the committee.

The study found that Howard schools have many programs and policies to combat youth violence. But the report made these suggestions:

Set up a community-based program to educate and support students who are expelled or suspended for more than 20 days. The committee said the center should be developed and funded by the school system, county criminal justice agencies, Health Department and other county agencies. The center also should serve as a transitional home for students released from juvenile correctional facilities and offer services such as drug and alcohol treatment and counseling, it said.

Maintain the county's Gateway School for students with social, emotional and academic problems that cannot be addressed within their neighborhood schools. Also, the school system should consider starting an alternative school for elementary students with similar problems.

Sponsor a conference with local public and private agencies and civic leaders to develop countywide violence prevention and intervention strategies. The school board also should encourage community groups to meet regularly and share ways to decrease youth violence.

Keep suspended middle and high school students in alternative, supervised classrooms -- rather than just sending them home. The in-school suspensions could help teach conflict resolution skills and ensure that the students keep up with their studies.

Require schools to devise rules for behavior that are known by students and parents and enforced by staff members.

Modify school system policies to more directly address violence and create policies, including one that would take a "zero tolerance stance on fighting and disruption."

Expand peer mediation programs to all Howard elementary, middle and high schools. Such programs use students to resolve disputes among their peers and teach them ways to reconcile differences, other than hitting and yelling.

Fully fund programs to identify and intervene with elementary students who are struggling academically or socially.

Increase training of teachers and other staff concerning violence and disruptive behavior and expand curriculums to include more material related to personal safety and violence prevention.

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