In Baltimore, more time in school means less juvenile crime

Police, school and corrections official say cooperative efforts may be paying off

  • Darren Farmer, 20, once a city school dropout, returned to W.E.B. Dubois High School for a diploma this year.
Darren Farmer, 20, once a city school dropout, returned to W.E.B.… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
November 13, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Four years ago, Darren Farmer's day started at noon and ended at 3 a.m. on a drug-riddled street corner.

The 16-year-old had walked away from Frederick Douglass High School, one of nearly 3,000 city students to drop out that year, because he "just felt as though I had no need for school if I couldn't make money." Dealing drugs filled his pockets with cash.

Soon, Farmer was arrested on drug and handgun charges and was incarcerated for two years. But this fall, he re-entered the city school system and is on his way to obtaining a high school diploma — a face behind the encouraging statistics that many say show that Baltimore is moving in the right direction.

The dropout rate for city students has plummeted this year, along with the rates for juvenile-involved crime and arrests, according to figures provided by the city school system and law enforcement agencies.

The encouraging development, officials say, is due in large part to close cooperation between the leaders of the city school system, the Police Department and the state juvenile corrections agency. City officials and others are expressing hope that Baltimore may have begun to break a cycle that some call the school-to-prison pipeline.

Since 2006, the number of children killed in the city has plunged by 80 percent, and the number of juveniles suspected in killings has dropped by about the same percentage.

The numbers come on the heels of the city recently celebrating a historically low dropout rate of 4 percent, and a record 66 percent graduation rate that the Baltimore school system said is driven primarily by achievements of black males.

No one is claiming an eradication of the ills fueled by poverty, drug abuse, lack of economic opportunity and fractured family structures. But those involved in youth issues say the crime and school statistics demonstrate significant movement in the right direction.

Baltimore's progress "really is phenomenal," said Jane Sundius, director for the Education and Youth Development Program for the Open Society Institute, an advocacy group that has researched the effect of dropouts and school suspensions on juvenile justice trends in the city.

"I have no doubt that these are related. If they're in school, they're not going to be involved in criminal activity," she said.

Breaking down barriers

Three new leaders took their posts in 2007 and were quickly confronted with long-standing frustrations over Baltimore's failure to keep its children in school and safe on the streets. Responding to a sense of urgency, they sought to create a philosophy for preventing juvenile crime and preparing youth for a better future.

For city schools CEO Andrés Alonso, it was instilling his belief that "kids come as is" and that the school system must rise to meet their challenges.

For Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, it was the idea that "we have to invest at a young age before temptation to go to the dark side is far too great," spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.

And as state Secretary of Juvenile Services Donald W. DeVore put it: "We were looking at files and realized that there were many missed opportunities to intervene in their lives."

"These [agencies] have all come together to break down barriers that have existed in the past to really implement significant programs," said Sheryl Goldstein, director of the mayor's office of criminal justice. "And now we're seeing the dividends."

In the year before the three leaders' took their posts, 10 percent of the city's high school students — about 3,000 — had dropped out of schools. The double-digit rate had held steady during the previous decade.

That year — 2006 — also saw more than 10,000 youths arrested by Baltimore police and processed through the Department of Juvenile Services, mirroring previous years. The city also saw double-digit numbers of juvenile homicides and nonfatal shootings that year.

Alonso said that in the first discussions he had with city leaders, everyone came to a consensus that "if we keep the kids in school, everyone's job would be easier."

But "it wasn't simply about keeping kids in school, or graduating kids from school; it's about the health of the city," Alonso said.

A study by the city's Health Department would confirm Alonso's belief that the school system plays an integral role in transforming the trajectory of the city's youths.

The study, which looked at youths involved in violent crime from 2002 to 2007, found that many spent a significant amount of time away from school. Of the Baltimore youths who were involved in crimes, 92 percent had a history of chronic truancy and 62 percent had been suspended or expelled, according to the study.

Sundius of the Open Society Institute said the recent statistics prove that officials realized that the way the city had dealt with its youth in the past — with zero-tolerance policies on the streets and in the schools — was often counterproductive.

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