City schools safer, survey finds

Students, parents, staff say climate was more welcoming in academic year just ended

June 15, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

A survey of Baltimore students, teachers and parents shows an overall perception that city schools were safer and more welcoming in the 2005-2006 school year than in the year before.

But the survey also highlighted the need for the school system to do more to improve safety in middle schools, where 46 percent of pupils said student possession of weapons such as guns or knives was a "moderate" or "major" problem. Forty-one percent of middle school pupils also noted problems with student alcohol and drug abuse.

The survey was based on responses from 40,820 students, 19,170 parents and 5,428 staff members. Questions were asked about a variety of topics involving school climate, generally finding more positive responses than in the year before, when fewer people were surveyed. Results were presented to the city school board Tuesday night.

But Michael Carter, chairman of the school system's Parent and Community Advisory Board, said the report might be misleading.

"You can be lulled into a false sense of security looking at this data," he said. "It painted a picture that said basically everything was fine."

Carter said he would like to have seen the school system ask more specific questions about school conditions, with a greater effort to solicit parent responses. Though participation was up significantly this year, he said the participation rate last year was "horrendous," making it difficult to compare results.

The survey is the second in a series being funded by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The center provided the system with a five-year, $5 million grant to research and improve school climate.

Philip J. Leaf, director of the Center for Prevention of Youth Violence at Hopkins, said the university hopes schools will be able to use their individual survey results to help guide school reform and identify places that are successful in creating a positive climate. The school system plans to post the survey results for each school on its Web site this year.

Despite positive trends on average, Leaf said results for individual schools vary widely. He also said results have implications beyond the school system, as students in some areas reported feeling unsafe traveling to and from school, explaining why they feel the need to carry weapons.

Survey results showed that the biggest problems students and staff identified in their schools were disruptive student behavior, students picking on each other, students fighting and vandalism of school property. Seventy-five percent of staff said disruptive student behavior was a problem, down from 79 percent last year.

At the same time, more parents, students and staff said they thought students felt safe in their schools. Most significantly, 83 percent of parents agreed that students felt safe, up from 68 percent last year. The improvement was less significant among student responses: Sixty-four percent of students said they felt safe, up from 62 percent the prior year.

Pupils said they felt safest at elementary schools and least safe in middle schools, where 49 percent of pupils said they felt safe.

Far more parents this past year than the year before said that they thought teachers knew their children well, and that their children's schools addressed emotional and social needs.

Sixty-three percent of students agreed with the statement "I like my school," compared with 50 percent the year before.

The survey results appear as the system increases its conflict-resolution and suspension-reduction programs. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the state labels schools with high suspension rates for violent offenses as "persistently dangerous." The only six schools in Maryland that last year were designated as persistently dangerous were all Baltimore middle schools.

The survey also addressed school building conditions. Only 22 percent of students said the bathrooms at their schools were clean, though that was up from 15 percent the year before. A majority of students and staff also took issue with building temperatures, with a majority reporting that their schools could be uncomfortably hot or cold.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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