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How-to Monday: Schools and neighborhood safety

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What do you want to know about a neighborhood before you sign a sales contract or apartment lease? Lots of things, probably -- but safety and schools top the list if you're like most people.

You'll need to do your own research: The federal Fair Housing Act prevents real estate agents from giving you information about school quality or other factors that boil down to characterizing a neighborhood.

"Realtors refer anyone who is interested in what goes on in the schools to the Board of Education," said Debbie Hager, director of communications for the Maryland Association of Realtors. "The Realtor really needs to remain totally impartial."

The Internet makes it easier than ever to start your research, though it's not the end-all and be-all.

To learn more about reported crimes in your area:

Anne Arundel County lets you look up crime stats near you -- or near the address of your choosing -- HERE. You can also put in an address and get general information, such as trash pickup times.

The Baltimore City Police Department has an interactive map HERE.

The Baltimore County Police Department keeps statistics and an interactive map HERE.

The Carroll County Sheriff's Office suggests that people seeking information about neighborhood crime call the office's public information officer, 410-386-2759. Similarly, the Harford County Sheriff's Office suggests calling its crime analysis unit, 410-836-5402.

The Howard County Police Department spits out reports about crime near the address of your choosing, though be warned that the stats are from 2006. Click HERE. (UPDATE in 2011: The data's more up-to-date now.)

To learn more about local public school test scores, go to the Maryland State Department of Education's Maryland Report Card site HERE. You can see scores for the Maryland School Assessment (MSA), the Alternate Maryland School Assessment (ALT-MSA), and the High School Assessments (HSA) -- they're summed up statewide, by county and by school. You can compare schools with other schools, and you can also look at the Adequate Yearly Progress reports.

But that's just the beginning. Crime stats and test scores won't necessarily tell you if you'll be comfortable living in the neighborhood and/or happy with the local schools. So visit -- and talk to neighbors and parents about what they think.

You can find other sources of information, too. The state's sex offender registry. The Sun's education blog, Crime Beat blog and homicide map. Another homicide map -- tracking a larger area -- on the blog burgersub.org. A collection of crime information on the Baltimore Crime blog.

Have other sites or offline sources of information you like? Please share.

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