Sauerbrey calls for discipline crackdown She backs suspensions at Northern, criticizes Glendening, Schmoke

November 27, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Using Baltimore's troubled Northern High School as a backdrop, gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey said yesterday that she would seek authority to withhold state education aid from local systems that fail to crack down on disruptive students.

Sauerbrey's plan was part of a detailed list of what she called "common-sense proposals to stem the type of behavior in our schools that would not have been tolerated when society was more civilized."

Although most of her 19-point agenda dealt with discipline issues, she also called for a back-to-basics curriculum with a renewed emphasis on phonics as a means of improving reading instruction.

The Republican front-runner said she came to Northern to support Principal Alice Morgan Brown's decision last week to suspend 1,200 of the school's 1,800 students after they refused to return to their homerooms to pick up report cards.

Sauerbrey said her support did not necessarily extend to Brown's overall performance as principal and called the suspensions "an act of desperation from a principal who needed help a long time ago."

She criticized Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for failing to defend the suspensions, which have received heavy public support.

Sauerbrey accused the governor of having "botched" his opportunity to deal with the issue of school discipline. "If I had been in his shoes, I would have been working on this problem a long time ago," she said.

Glendening issued a statement decrying Sauerbrey's "partisan political rhetoric."

"To use Northern High School as an opportunity for blaming and finger-pointing sends a terrible message to the very students we are here to educate," he said.

Glendening noted that in 1996, he successfully pushed legislation to increase the power of principals to discipline students and to require local school systems to adopt their own disciplinary codes.

Schmoke said elected officials should leave matters at Northern out of politics and in the hands of the newly restructured city school board and the system's chief executive officer.

'It's a stretch'

"I think it's a stretch to try to get the governor involved in the discipline problems at Northern High School," Schmoke said. "I think some would say Mrs. Sauerbrey is diving deep for her pearls."

Sauerbrey has been stressing the need for school discipline and curriculum changes since the start of her campaign, but the program she outlined yesterday was her most specific. She appears to be positioning herself to challenge Glendening's frequent claim to be the "education governor."

Sauerbrey said she expects education to be the central issue in the 1998 gubernatorial race. Four years ago, she said, her campaign stressed the economy, public safety and education but found that voters seemed most interested in taxes.

"Now, I don't care what audience I talk to, when I talk about those three issues, everybody wants to talk about schools," Sauerbrey said. "The frustration that our kids aren't learning, that the schools aren't safe is just driving the debate."

'Zero tolerance'

Her plan for dealing with school discipline problems includes establishing "zero tolerance" as the statewide standard for dealing with violent behavior, requiring parents to sign "contracts" acknowledging responsibility for their children's behavior and requiring parents of disruptive students to accompany their children to classes.

Probably the most controversial item is her plan to seek legislation allowing the state school superintendent to withhold financial aid from local school systems that fail to meet state standards for maintaining order and discipline.

Sauerbrey acknowledged that the proposal might seem inconsistent with her general belief that education decisions should be made at the local level. But she said the state's obligation to ensure order in the schools overrides that concern.

Ron Peiffer, spokesman for state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, said imposing a statewide standard could create problems.

"You have to make these decisions at the local level because we have such wide differences in the communities," Peiffer said.

"What's going to work in an urban school district is not necessarily going to work in Garrett County."

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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