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City school system grapples with weapons

Homicide

After at least three weapons-related incidents in as many months, including one in which a student was stabbed in the abdomen, city school officials acknowledge that they are struggling with a problem that has led to dozens of students being expelled and more than 100 weapons being confiscated last year.

"We recover weapons from students on a frequent basis," said Jonathan Brice, who oversees student support and safety for the school system. "But schools are microcosms of the broader society. In many cases where we've found weapons, we've found they're carrying them not because of fear in school, but fear going to and from school."

After a stabbing Nov. 3 at Civitas Middle/High School, the system has vowed a new emphasis on requiring the system's middle and high schools to do random checks using metal detectors and hand wands, a time-consuming task that schools sometimes avoid. Brice said that nearly all of the system's secondary schools have been equipped with at least one of the tools and are required to use them on a random basis.

Brice said Civitas did have a metal detector before the incident, but he believed the school did not use it on the day of the stabbing.

According to discipline data requested by The Baltimore Sun, the system has seen a steady stream of weapons filtering into schools since 2008, ranking among the highest numbers of disciplinary sanctions. Since the school year began in September, school officials have publicly acknowledged that police have retrieved three deadly weapons from students, including two handguns and the knife that was used in the Nov. 3 stabbing.

In the 2010-2011 school year, the district noted slight increases in the number of weapons incidents referred to school police and weapons-related expulsions. Last school year, there were 122 incidents of weapons possession reported to city school police, compared with 109 the year before, and 82 students were expelled for possessing weapons.

"As a parent and educator, those numbers give me reason to be concerned, but I still think that school is the safest place for our kids to be," Brice said. He pointed out that the system has 83,000 students and more than 200 schools.

School officials say that overall, the climate in schools has been "moving in the right direction," pointing to annual "climate" surveys taken of students, parents and school staff.

The most recent survey results for the district show that of the responses, 69 percent of students responded that they felt safe in school.

Overall, arrests for weapons recovered in city schools have fallen by more than 70 percent, reflecting the decrease in arrests of students in the city, in part because of diversion programs such as teen court. The system has reduced the number of arrests for all offenses by 60 percent since 2008, when more students were arrested for weapons than any other offense.

Youth advocates agreed with school officials that the prevalence of weapons could reflect students' fears about safety outside of school.

"While we want to keep our schools safe, we also want to keep our students safe in the greater community, so we always push the school officials and elected officials not to make policies based on high-profile incidents, but look at the totality of the circumstances," said Angela Conyers Johnese, juvenile justice director at Advocates for Children and Youth. "It's all about the appropriate interventions."

Brice added that while it is rare for students to use weapons in attacks on school grounds, officials are aware that situations can escalate quickly.

Three years ago, a 15-year-old boy was stabbed to death by a classmate at William H. Lemmel Middle School — the first killing of a student on city school grounds during school hours in more than 20 years. Police attributed the murder, for which a 14-year-old boy was convicted, to a continuing dispute that occurred outside school, though the assailant said he was bullied.

According to police reports from the stabbing at Civitas, Devon Lee Thomas, a 14-year-old student, is accused of using his 41/2-inch folding buck knife to stab a classmate after the victim had his hands around Thomas' throat "giving the appearance of choking him." The documents say that police observed the incident on video surveillance at the school. Thomas was charged as an adult with attempted first-degree murder and assault.

The victim declined to comment when contacted by The Baltimore Sun, and attempts to reach the victim's parents were unsuccessful.

"The problem that we had years ago is a similar problem that we have now — we have to get into a deep conversation with parents about how to teach their kids about conflict resolution," said Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the local chapter of the National Action Network.

"The crime is definitely out in the streets, but no matter where it is, we have to confront it. The best place to confront it is schools."

Thomas' father, Robert Thomas, said in an interview that he couldn't discuss the specifics of his son's case and that the family was in the process of retaining an attorney.

But he did say that "children bringing knives to school is just the tip of the iceberg; the situation is a lot more serious than that."

Thomas said that other factors play into whether students feel safe, like the ability of school staff to manage the student body.

"When you have your managers running around the school doing different things, they don't have time to supervise anything — just put Band-Aids on things," Thomas said. "And obviously, the situation is going to get worse if you just put a Band-Aid on it."

erica.green@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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