800 students discuss ways to improve school safety

At summit, they urge adults to listen more, call for inclusiveness

November 02, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Almost 800 Maryland students skipped school yesterday to talk about something that's been worrying them: their safety.

They told teachers and administrators that they don't want to go to school in high-tech fortresses. They want adults to talk less and listen more. And they promised to work with their friends to find nonviolent solutions to conflicts.

"We need to be more inclusive with our social groups, to make sure students don't feel left out and ignored," said Anita Wheeler, a senior at Baltimore's Western High School and one of the organizers of yesterday's Maryland Student Summit on Safe Schools. "We all see fights, and we've all had bomb threats, so safety is something that worries everyone."

Gathered in Woodlawn, the students heard from Jane Hammond, schools superintendent in Jefferson County, Colo. -- home of Columbine High School, where two students fatally shot 12 others and a teacher in the spring.

Hammond, who worked at the Maryland education department for eight years in the 1980s, urged students and educators not to think that safety lies in metal detectors, barbed wire or moats around school buildings.

"That's not going to help," said Hammond, who says she speaks on safety to ensure that the students in Columbine did not die in vain.

"It's how we as people come together as a team and make commitments to each other for safety.

"That's the difference between a tragedy like Columbine and the kind of safety and security we can create that's good for every single child," Hammond said.

Hammond and Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick urged students to remember that violence in schools remains relatively rare. "Despite all of the pain that we saw in [Columbine and other shootings], schools remain one of the country's safest places," Grasmick said.

"Indeed, for many of our students, schools are the safest place they go."

In the 1997-98 school year, there were 56 incidents involving handguns reported in Maryland's schools, down from more than 70 the year before.

A state schools safety task force recommended this summer that Maryland begin a uniform reporting system for violent school incidents, suspensions and expulsions.

But with memories of the spring's killings fresh, safety has become a much stronger focus in all 24 Maryland school systems and across the country.

Last week, four students at a Cleveland high school were arrested on charges of planning a racially motivated attack.

Every school in the state is expected to have a crisis plan, regularly practiced and ready to be activated in case of a shooting or other disaster.

Seven Baltimore County high schools added police officers this fall -- with more expected next year. Two schools had them last year.

Even such rural school systems as Washington County have ordered all employees to wear identification badges.

About 120 schools have juvenile probation officers assigned to them, and the state plans to begin a toll-free hot line for students to anonymously report safety concerns in their schools, said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Townsend told the gathering that she has set up a $5,000 fund to give students grants to create safety programs for their schools. A second student safety summit in the spring will allow students to share those ideas that prove to be successful.

"Students should be looking at their books, not over their shoulders," Townsend told the students. "The worst thing that you should have to fear at school is a pop quiz."

With the encouragement of Ginni Wolf, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, students at the summit signed an anti-gun violence pledge, promising never to use guns to settle disputes. Many also signed a huge banner with the pledge.

"We don't have a lot of problems with weapons, but we always have a lot of fist fights," said Darrick Brown, a junior at La Plata High School in Charles County. "This year, the administrators are out in the halls more, talking to us and listening to us. That seems to be helping. We all need to pay more attention and be aware of what's going on."

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