School violence study initiated Marchione names Disney to chair 25-member panel

June 23, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Saying the nation's recent spate of shootings forces school officials to take threats more seriously, Baltimore County Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione yesterday appointed a committee to examine how the district prevents and responds to violence.

"Threats in particular have taken on a new meaning," Marchione said. "We have come to realize that you cannot ignore a threat because of what the consequences seem to be now as opposed to what they were in the past."

The fatal school shootings in Arkansas, Oregon and Pennsylvania sparked questions from principals, teachers and parents about Baltimore County's policies, prompting Marchione to put together the group to look exclusively at serious threats and violence associated with such weapons as guns and knives.

"An incident that may occur as far away as Washington State or Oregon or California will have and does have an impact on us, too," Marchione said. "We are a part of the world community."

The 25-member committee will be led by former school board president Calvin Disney and include county educators as well as representatives from such groups as the teachers union, county Department of Social Services, law enforcement, students and parents.

The committee is scheduled to issue its report Oct. 15, a day after the school district's sixth annual conference on school safety ends.

Marchione and Disney said they continue to believe that Baltimore County's 160 schools are safe. They characterized the committee's work as a precaution to keep them that way.

"This is a prudent step," Disney said. "We can't ignore what is happening around the country."

So far, Baltimore County has avoided the violence that has troubled many school districts. This school year, Baltimore County reported only a handful of gun incidents -- among the fewest in Maryland -- said schools spokesman Donald I. Mohler.

Still, those incidents were troubling. Last month, a Hereford Middle School eighth-grader was arrested after he brought an nTC unloaded semiautomatic handgun and eight bullets to school -- though there was no indication he planned to use the weapon.

Principals praised Marchione's decision yesterday to appoint the committee, saying it's time to review better ways of prevention. While school officials regularly make changes to policies on classroom discipline and student behavior, they rarely -- if ever -- look exclusively at the more serious issue of violence.

"We need to be more than reactive," said Wayne Thibeault, principal of General John Stricker Middle School and a member of the committee. "We need to be proactive to help stop these things from happening."

In the committee's first brief meeting yesterday afternoon, Marchione asked the members to examine several questions, including: Are the school system's policies and procedures adequate to deal with potential violent situations?

Are there characteristics of students who may be prone to violence, and can that information help prevent violence in schools?

What additional training do school principals need to better respond to violent situations?

Should the district develop a "Critical Incident Team" that could respond instantly to school emergencies? The system already has a "Traumatic Loss Team" that provides counseling and help after a death in a school community.

How can the school system bring in other community groups to improve safety?

The school district already has many policies in place to deal with violence, such as one requiring automatic expulsion for bringing guns to school, Marchione said.

Next fall, it will begin a pilot program with police officers at two high schools who will focus on building trust with students.

Pub Date: 6/23/98

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