Schools strive to stem violence

Aggression takes toll on kids, educators

Confronting Crime

The Battle For Baltimore's Future

December 29, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

For a new principal, picking the school's uniform seemed like a simple decision: The students at Homeland Security Academy in West Baltimore would wear royal blue polos and khaki pants. Then fights started breaking out in the first days of the school year.

Blue is the color associated with the Crips gang. Members of the rival Bloods, who wear red, weren't having it.

"It's all because of this color," 17-year-old Brittany Harris said one day this fall while her school, part of the Walbrook high school complex, was under lockdown. "When they see you with this color, they try to fight you."

The principal quickly offered the option for students to wear yellow shirts instead.

In a year in which violence has been front and center in Baltimore, the city's public schools have been central to the debate.

And the dynamics surrounding school violence in the city are changing, with attacks spurred by the growth of organized gangs - combined with a systemwide reshaping of high schools that's forced rival territorial groups to share buildings. Evolving technology is also a factor: Students now use their cell phone cameras to videotape school fights and post the footage online. Threatening messages that they exchange on teen-oriented Web sites spill over into school conflicts.

As city schools chief Andres Alonso tries to reform a troubled system, ensuring order is a necessary first step. Within the past month, he offered to install metal detectors in any middle or high school that wants them. Forty schools have asked for the devices so far, and Alonso said he expects more requests.

"The premise of a school is it needs to be a safe haven," Alonso said. "There are so many children who start out on the right path and become perpetrators or victims of incidents that make instruction an afterthought."

Teachers and administrators face monumental challenges trying to keep the violence of city streets outside school walls, and trying to educate children who in many cases are traumatized by the violence they've witnessed. In an environment where the color of a uniform can prompt fighting, violence easily spills from neighborhoods into classrooms, and back again.

On Oct. 9, children at James McHenry Elementary were locked in their classrooms after shots were fired in the parking lot. On Nov. 29, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Garrison Middle was fatally stabbed while out of school on suspension, a victim of street violence. On Dec. 4, nine students were charged with brutally beating a woman on a public bus as they rode home from Robert Poole Middle.

Assault on teachers

Incidents leading to arrests by school police were up 26 percent in the first two months of this academic year compared with the same period last year, from 172 to 216. The majority of violent incidents were in a handful of buildings, among them Walbrook, where a boy from Homeland Security set a girl's hair on fire Oct. 3. On Halloween, a 15-year-old girl stabbed a 17-year-old girl in the chest at Forest Park High after the older girl threw chalk at her.

Sometimes, violent incidents go unreported.

Brad Fields, a math and technology teacher at Dr. Samuel L. Banks High, pressed charges after a student assaulted him in his classroom Sept. 27. He said teachers who are assaulted at his school don't always report the incidents, and he wanted the problem known. "There's a whole lot more of this than what's documented publicly," he said. "Teachers don't even tell their spouses. Our spouses worry about our safety."

According to school system data, there have been three teacher assaults at Banks so far this academic year. But the assault against Fields, in which criminal charges were filed, was not among the incidents listed in the data, and officials could not explain why. Another recent incident in which a student allegedly threw a chair at a teacher also was not included.

In Fields' case, the teacher used his cell phone to take pictures of students roaming the halls during class time, so he could turn them in to the school office. After school that day, he said, a student in the photos came into his classroom and tried to steal his phone.

Fields said the most important thing administrators can do to prevent violence is "having hallways clear of students who are not attending class."

A common disruption is arson. So far this school year, which is halfway over, there have been 55 reported incidents of arson or attempted arson, compared with 170 for all of last year. While projecting a decline in arsons for the school year, officials are investigating fires at the Walbrook complex and Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High where the buildings weren't evacuated.

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