Violence at Baltimore schools persists despite crackdown

Aggressive policing reduces student crime

January 15, 1999|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Despite progress Baltimore school officials have made in reducing the presence of drugs, weapons and fighting at schools last fall, they acknowledge that they haven't been able to keep the violence of the streets away.

Wednesday was proof of that. At Southwestern High School, a student was shot just feet from the doors before school as 60 students brawled with baseball bats, screwdrivers and guns in a neighborhood rivalry. Eight girls in a car were arrested outside Lake Clifton High School at dismissal time. Police found three guns in the car.

"It is a community problem. Until there is community outrage I am not sure we will ever solve the problem," said Sandra Wighton, director of secondary education at the city schools.

The school system took numerous steps last fall to reduce violence in the schools: writing a tougher discipline code, instituting weapons searches and policing schools aggressively.

Those efforts have paid off, according to School Police Chief Leonard Hamm, who has documented a 42 percent decline in student arrests and a 45 percent reduction in student assaults from October to last month.

"We have a squad of police officers who will go in at the request of a principal, and we will select a group of students. We will sweep those students and their lockers," Hamm said.

School police have brought in a computer that can detect drugs in an area. They are watching students as they go into bathrooms. If they don't come out in a certain amount of time, Hamm said, an officer will go in to make sure the students are not getting into trouble.

After continual problems at Southern High School last fall, Robert Booker, chief executive officer of the city schools, instituted a zero-tolerance policy. If a student starts a fire, assaults a teacher, brings a weapon to school or is caught with drugs, the student is expelled.

An alternative school, expected to open in mid-February, will begin taking some of the students expelled from their neighborhood high schools. Most recently, the students have been transferred to another high school.

Booker did not return phone calls yesterday seeking comment on the latest troubles.

Southwestern's principal, Mildred Harris, has sought to diffuse neighborhood rivalries by holding monthly forums on violence with students, parents, teachers, community leaders and mental health professionals, according to Vanessa Pyatt, a school spokeswoman.

The next forum will be Jan. 27. Every two weeks, she brings together the student rivals to talk about their conflicts. She took a group of 10 students to a state prison in Jessup for a day to see what the inside of a prison is like.

"She has been very proactive in dealing with school violence and supporting her students and staff," said Christolyne Buie, an area executive officer for the city schools.

Pyatt said the students involved in Wednesday's brawl will be disciplined -- expelled from the school, arrested and prosecuted.

Neighborhood conflicts have troubled Baltimore schools for years. Last school year, a 15-year-old student from Northern High School was shot to death as part of a dispute between two warring neighborhood groups.

Police say Baltimore's neighborhood groups are unlike traditional gangs. They are not tight-knit friends, but a loose group of youths who might barely know one another but will come to the defense of their neighborhood when asked.

The shooting at Southwestern on Wednesday was the continuation of a dispute between the boys from Lexington Terrace public housing complex and boys from Westport. They had fought in school the day before and came Wednesday prepared to brawl with weapons.

"This [violence] has nothing to do with the high schools our young people are coming to," Hamm said, "They have issues in their neighborhoods."

In the Lake Clifton case, school officials had broken up a fight between girls Tuesday.

When they saw the car with the eight girls outside the school Wednesday, police decided to search it for weapons. Two of the eight girls were students at the high school. All of the girls in the car have been charged with handgun violations, Hamm said.

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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