After pupils draft note during school, their concerns become legislation

Girls get a civics lesson as they address safety

March 07, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Eighth-graders Cordae Wescott and Lasheena Holloway didn't believe a concern they had about school safety - jotted down on a piece of paper last spring - would actually become the basis for a bill introduced by a member of the House of Delegates this session.

But it has.

And today is the girls' big day: The 13-year-olds will travel to Annapolis with two of their social studies teachers and a busload of classmates from William H. Lemmel Middle School to testify at a committee hearing in support of the Baltimore City School Safety Act of 2002.

Last month, Del. Lisa A. Gladden introduced the bill, which calls for police to be posted in every city school and metal detectors to be installed at the entrance of every school building.

"I don't see how anyone can not make this a law. It's safety. It's children," said Cordae, who serves as sergeant-at-arms in the student government and wants to be an obstetrician. "They say we are the future, we are the next generation. We have to live to see the next generation."

Lasheena, who intends to be a lawyer, said: "It could help a lot because we don't know what a student could be carrying" into school.

The girls haven't felt particularly unsafe at Lemmel, a school of about 1,000 pupils off Gwynns Falls Parkway on the city's northwest side.

But they were affected, they say, by the shooting rampage at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999 - it happened on Cordae's 11th birthday - and a separate school shooting last year in California.

A fatal shooting outside Baltimore's Lake Clifton-Eastern High School in January 2001 also made them think about their vulnerability.

The legislation originated last spring, when Cordae and Lasheena were in De-Wain Brown's world cultures class. Brown used a bill on racial profiling to help his students understand how the legislative process works.

Gladden, a Democrat representing the 41st District, agreed to address several classes about that bill and her role in Annapolis. While she was talking in the auditorium, Cordae and Lasheena put their ideas about school safety down on paper, then asked Brown if he thought Gladden would take a look.

"You'll never know unless you try," he told them.

"They just walked up and said, `We have a bill,'" Gladden remembered yesterday. "And I said, `Okay, let me hear it.'"

During U.S. history class at Lemmel yesterday, teacher Eleanor Nichols led Cordae, Lasheena and their classmates in a discussion of the bill's pros and cons, stressing the importance of knowing the opposition's arguments before making your own.

Aside from privacy issues, one of the major obstacles, they decided, would be cost.

Gladden estimated the price tag would be about $6 million a year - enough to all but guarantee that the bill won't get far. Dozens of additional officers would have to be hired, not to mention the purchase of metal detectors, which have rarely been used in city schools.

"The message is so much stronger than the fiscal note," Gladden explained. "What it said to me was that, in the seventh grade, children understand their lives, and they understand what they need to do to improve their lives. ... I couldn't in good faith tell them we can't do this."

Cordae and Lasheena say they will pursue passage of the bill no matter what. Even if the legislation doesn't get the go-ahead from the Ways and Means Committee, they and their classmates have learned a real-life lesson in civics, and how ideas have reach.

"They're now participating in the political process," Brown said. "I believe they have learned how to be `model citizens.'"

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