Defusing the time bombs

May 19, 2004|By Ed Burns

IF YOU WANT to know about the corner murderers and their victims in Baltimore, don't ask a cop, ask a teacher.

Sure, a cop can take you under the yellow tape, read a name off the toe tag. She can even pull up the suspect's rap sheet and review the list of adult and juvenile arrests. In some cases, she might be able to tell you what inanity passed for a motive in the killing that became the latest addition to the murder board. But when you've digested all the information, you still don't have much of a picture about the pedigree of the killers or the killed.

The teachers know. They should. They are the ones who spend 180 days a year coping with these kids as they struggle in a futile effort to reconcile the hard world they come from with the world of the classroom. The teachers witness the early disconnect of these kids as they struggle between these two worlds.

Interview the first-grade teacher, and she'll tell you about the time the neglected corner kid spat out a curse when all she did was ask him to sit down. The fourth-grade teacher can tell you about the kid who threw the class set of textbooks out the third-story window on a rainy day for "no reason." The seventh-grade teacher can recount when the kid sucker-punched a classmate because "she looked at me wrong." The ninth-grade teacher can relate the incident in the stairwell where the kid and his squad banked a classmate because he "didn't get out of our way." The 10th-grade teacher ... don't bother knocking on his door; the kid you're interested in doesn't make it to the 10th grade. (The only ray of hope you'll take from your interviews is that the corner kids represent a small percentage of the student body.)

When you've compiled a sketch of what you've learned, a picture will emerge of a kid who is an angry, frustrated, hostile, fragile, neglected, abused, living, breathing time bomb.

Immediately you're going to recheck your assessment because what you were told won't jibe with what you saw in the classroom. The corner kids the teachers pointed out to you looked and acted like any of the other kids. But if you doubt what your ears have heard, drop by the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse. There you'll find young men on trial for a host of horrific crimes. When you watch them sitting before the bar of justice, you just need to remember that five or six years ago these same souls sat behind desks in a middle school. Scary.

One horrific crime is murder. Of the 100 murders in Baltimore so far this year, 13 of them were of juveniles, according to a police spokesman. Four juveniles have been arrested on murder charges.

To control the conduct of the corner kid, the Baltimore school system provides its teachers with a set of classroom management strategies. Teachers are instructed to: 1) create engaging and insightful hands-on lesson plans; 2) tweak the seating chart to surround the "problem child" with reliable, on-task students; 3) experiment with various desk configurations; and 4) be wary of where the pencil sharpener is placed.

Given what you know now, you might arch an eyebrow. But interestingly, if you were to survey teachers in the county schools, many would tell you that a judicious implementation of these principles, and a liberal dose of humor and common sense, is all that is required to create a learning environment. If you surveyed city teachers 25 years ago, you would have gotten the same response. But today, things have changed for many of the city's kids. And therein lies the rub.

For reasons that have to do with political correctness, the working premise of school policy-makers is one that refuses to recognize that the corner kid differs from his classmates in kind, not degree. "He's having a bad day, but he'll come around," seems to be as far as the system is equipped to go in its assessments.

If you follow that logic, then the kid who graduates from high school and goes on to college or employment is the same kid who could just as easily have opted one day to walk up to the corner, kill a peer and go to prison. Surely, the chasm between these life alternatives indicates that there are two distinct outlooks and mind-sets.

By refusing to see the corner kid as different - because his needs are different - the school system cannot cope with the kid. When the kid acts out, and this can happen several times a day, the teacher can only fall back on the classic classroom-management tactics that fall on Teflon eyes - eyes that say the teacher is not getting through. When that doesn't rope the kid in, the teacher has little choice but to remove him from the classroom.

The burden shifts to the principal. She has a couple of options: 1) send the kid back to class with a promise to be good and try harder; 2) suspend him. This repetitious cycle of classroom eruptions and suspensions defines the kid's school year. In June, after he fails miserably, there is another problem: what to do with him. At some point, there is only one option: social promotion.

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