Assaults drop, threats jump in county schools

Disciplinary citations increase 7.5 percent in past school year

`Increased awareness'

March 24, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

While the total number of Anne Arundel County students cited for discipline problems increased by 7.5 percent last school year and verbal threats doubled, assaults were down and fewer students were expelled, officials reported last week.

They view that as a sign that intervention and counseling programs begun in recent years are working - making schools safer and less confrontational. And they said those programs must expand to all elementary and middle schools.

"When kids understand at a young age that you have to listen to each other and work things out, that grows with them," said school board member Tony Spencer.

Weapons offenses - mostly cases involving small pocketknives - rose 42 percent in county schools last year, while drug and alcohol incidents were up 31 percent. Assaults, however, were down 14 percent. Total disciplinary citations increased from 1,184 to 1,273.

"What we're seeing is a collaborative effort with administrators, teachers, students and parents seeking to improve safety in our schools," said Leon Washington, the school system's special assistant for student discipline.

Numbers are up in some categories, Washington said, because of vigilance. "It's increased awareness."

Most of the 106 percent increase in verbal threats came from elementary school pupils, whose casual remarks are being taken more seriously.

"It's things like, `I'm gonna kill you' or `I'm gonna go home and get my daddy's gun,'" Washington said. "They don't actually know what they're saying, but it's inappropriate because of the heightened awareness [of school violence] and you have to take all of those very seriously."

A more encouraging number for school officials is a 17 percent drop in the number of students expelled last year, down to 320 countywide.

Several high schools have begun peer support programs and have increased their communication with parents. The programs have led to significantly fewer expulsions at the high schools, including Annapolis, Meade and South River.

Annapolis High last year started sending student leaders to classrooms to talk about appropriate behavior, school rules and how to stay out of trouble. The result: Expulsions dropped from 30 to 10 in one year.

"It's easier to listen to a peer in terms of trying to walk in a different direction," said Assistant Principal D. Vance Williams. "Oftentimes, the kids looks at us adults as the authority, and we may not be able to say it the right way."

Three-quarters of the students expelled in the county were male, and 40 percent of those expelled were 14 or 15 years old. That demonstrates a need for intervention in late middle school and early high school, officials said.

Some high schools are trying to get freshmen more involved in extracurricular activities, make clear the rules and expectations, and schedule more parent conferences.

Elementary schools, meanwhile, have seen success with the No Putdowns and Second Step programs, which teach children how to control their anger. At Woodside Elementary in Glen Burnie, the number of children cited for fighting, arguing or using bad language fell from 55 to 30 last year after Second Step began.

"I think it works well because it teaches children exactly what they need to do when faced with problems and when they get angry," said Woodside guidance counselor Ellen Rennie.

As part of the program, children get one lesson a week on topics from empathizing to solving problems to dealing with anger. They explore responses to hypothetical situations - such as fighting over a ball on the playground - and use worksheets to solve possible real-life problems.

The No Putdowns and Second Step programs were expanded this year to 63 of the county's 77 elementary schools and 13 of the 19 middle schools.

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