School crime wanes in city

Zero tolerance policy yields declines of as much as 70%

High schools improve most

Disruptive behavior means suspension, transfer or expulsion

November 12, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

An aggressive zero tolerance approach toward crime in Baltimore public schools has slashed the number of disruptive incidents and violence by as much as 70 percent in some of the city's most troubled schools, according to statistics released this week.

Data from the city's 180 schools show crime overall was down 31 percent and arrests were down almost two-thirds in September and October, compared with the same months last year.

"Zero tolerance simply means acts are not going to be ignored; they are going to be addressed one way or another," said School Police Chief Leonard Hamm. "We are talking about things so simple as walking in the halls with a hat on your head."

Under the policy, proposed last fall and implemented in the spring in the wake of highly publicized problems at Southern High School and other schools, disruptive behavior means automatic suspension, assignment to alternative schools or expulsion. Cases of criminal behavior are turned over to city police for prosecution.

"Our kids know if you do X, then Y results," said Southern Principal Patricia L. Blansfield.

The policy is similar to one Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley plans to have the city police adopt. Robert Booker, the schools' chief executive officer, said yesterday that a citywide policy of zero tolerance would help further reduce school crime further.

Most categories of school crime were down in September and October, including assault, robberies, weapon possession and arson, but marijuana possession and breaking and entering complaints rose slightly.

The overall decrease hinges on significant reductions in crime at high schools, where brawls could break out in hallways, courtyards and cafeterias. Video cameras are more common, and more safety officers are handing out stiffer penalties for misbehavior.

Blansfield and some of her students said the changes at their school have been remarkable, particularly since 20 students involved in two large fights in September were transferred to other city schools.

"It used to be students would automatically be jumped if they came from the east side and came in contact with four guys from Cherry Hill rolling on the floor pummeling the dickens out of each other," Blansfield said.

Districtwide statistics comparing the first two months of this school year with the same period last year show that student assaults on other students were down 30 percent and student assaults on teachers, police officers and other staff members were down 50 percent.

School life is also changing at Southern, where pep rallies and dances had been banned for several years because of safety concerns.

Southern had one of the smaller decreases in crime among the city's most troubled high schools -- 17 percent for the two-month period, to 29 incidents from 35 -- but last Friday the school resumed pep rallies, and it plans a dance tonight, its first in six years.

Southern had about 180 false fire alarms or small arson trash fires during September and October last year.

"This year we had two, and both have been pulled by myself," Blansfield said, crediting the new $40,000, 32-camera security system and new plastic covers on the fire alarms that trigger a piercing noise when removed.

Crime was also down at middle schools and elementary schools. At William H. Lemmell Middle School, incidents were down 59 percent, to seven in the two-month period this year from 17 last year.

High schools, where crime was most prevalent, reported the biggest decreases. Patterson High School reported a 71 percent decrease, to 17 incidents of thefts, assaults and other crimes from 58 last year.

At Lake Clifton High School, the decrease was 53 percent, to 18 incidents this year from 38 last year.

Incidents at Northern High School fell 61 percent, to 16 from 41. The decrease at Northwestern High School was 75 percent, to four incidents from 16.

"There no longer is a worst," said Hamm, the school police chief since March 1997. "All of our schools are good."

Hamm said arrests have dropped because students have gotten the message.

Students and parents had mixed reactions to the decrease in crime. Calvin Whiting, whose daughter attends Lake Clifton High School, is not convinced that city schools are improving. Whiting was at the school yesterday trying to have his daughter, who has a learning disability, transferred to another school because of his fear of crime.

Whiting and several students said a gun was fired in a school cafeteria in September and that safety precautions made the incident worse.

"When the shooting happened, everybody ran for the doors trying to get out but couldn't because the doors were locked," said Montique H. Rose, a 10th-grader.

The school's principal could not be reached to comment yesterday, but Booker said it is disturbing that doors were locked from the inside.

Unfair searches claimed

Some high school and middle school students said yesterday that zero tolerance disturbs them. They have been unfairly stopped and searched in halls, they said.

"It makes it safer most of the time, but school police will grab you and check your pockets for no reason," said Robert Antwon Joseph Jr., a ninth-grader at Lake Clifton.

"So it's the police that you don't feel safe" from, he said.

Booker said he doubts that school police are too aggressive. "I think we are setting the appropriate tone in our schools," he said.

Other students praised the new policy.

"It's like a new school," said Eric C. Thompson, a senior at Southern. "I don't see as many fights, kids in the hallway or all the fire drills we had last year."

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