School crime in Baltimore rose 41.8 percent in the 1990-91 school year, as authorities logged a total of 2,193 felonies and misdemeanors in the city schools, compared with 1,547 a year before.
But school officials say serious crimes -- including those involving guns or drugs -- decreased during the 1990-91 school year. The overall rise in crime was caused by an increase in less serious offenses such as trespassing, common assaults and minor thefts, school officials say.
"Our average offenses have gone up, but it's been mostly in the area of what we call 'misdemeanor crimes,' " says Douglas J. Neilson, school department spokesman.
For example, officials reported 200 more "miscellaneous" misdemeanors last year than the year before, the bulk of them due to a new state law making portable pagers illegal on school property.
There were also an additional 179 common assaults and 104 trespass incidents last year.
Officials also posted a substantial increase in sex offenses -- a total of 73 in the most recent year, compared with 33 in the 1989-1990 school year.
But the bulk of those offenses, a total of 63, were misdemeanors such as fondling, according to school police.
School officials attribute the increase in sex offenses to more diligent reporting of incidents in the past year, sparked by the arrest of an elementary school custodian in a sexual assault last fall.
They also cite more complete reporting as a reason for the rise in common assault and trespassing incidents.
Among more serious crimes, robbery and weapons possession also increased somewhat.
But gun crimes continued their decline from the peak year of 1984, when Baltimore had a total of 122 firearms offenses.
In the most recent year, school officials reported a total of 22 incidents involving firearms -- and no shootings -- down from 28 in the 1989-1990 school year.
Half of those gun incidents took place outside school buildings, and half were committed by non-students, according to school officials. Only two incidents within a school building involved injuries or threats, as opposed to firearms possession.
Incidents of assault with a deadly weapon also declined in the most recent school year.
In addition, drug crimes were down slightly, from a total of 35 in the year ending 1989 to 30 in the most recent school year. That includes seven cases of sale or distribution, up from five the previous year.
But 75 percent of the drug crimes last year involved heroin or cocaine, a dramatic increase from the 25 percent total in the 1987-88 school year.
Students and school staffers, meanwhile, describe a school atmosphere far different from the one in 1988, when a school crime wave drew talk show host Oprah Winfrey to Baltimore for a nationally televised program.
"We don't have too many problems with guns and all that," says Michael T. Barnes, who this fall will enter the 11th grade at Lake Clifton/Eastern Senior High School in Baltimore.
Though his school was once plagued by violent incidents, Barnes says, "now all of that seems to be under control." He cites strong leadership by the school administration.
And Dianna Rogers, a counselor at Edmondson/Westside Senior High School, describes a school atmosphere far different from the fear and intimidation reported in other cities.
"I think we're in a safe environment, I feel comfortable," says Rogers, who graduated from Edmondson in the 1960s. "I think efforts have been made to address the issue of security within the schools."
Violent crime continues to plague schools around the country, and the problem is not limited to urban school systems.
According to the most recent figures available from the U.S. Department of Justice, a total of 249,600 violent crimes took place on school property nationwide in 1989, including 217,300 assaults and 27,000 robberies.
But figures for individual cities are scarce, according to Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center.
"Many of the school districts do not want to report it, because school administrations think that makes them look bad," he says.
Baltimore is an exception.
The city has been collecting school crime statistics since 1967, according to Larry Burgan, chief of the school department's security force.
Though the total number of school crimes increased last year, school officials take some solace in the fact that the increase mainly involved minor offenses, including trespassing, disorderly conduct, minor theft and vandalism.
And they take pains to point out the dramatic decrease in high-profile gun and drug crimes in recent years.
In the area of firearms, Burgan gives credit in part to a tough school policy requiring expulsion for possession of a firearm. Students also are allowed to carry only see-through bags on school property, a measure intended to cut down on the possession of concealed weapons.
He says drug offenses have dropped in part because of "the great deal of attention paid to this problem. . . . It's not worth the risk."
Burgan says the school system also has been tougher in enforcing rules against outsiders in the schools.
All school doors are supposed to be locked to outsiders, except the main entrance. Visitors are required to check in at the main office, and some school buildings have video surveillance of the entrances.
School staffers also cite another controversial security measure: the dress code that prohibits clothing items that have been the target of robbery attempts in the past.
In the view of many teachers, the school crime problem is less serious than more routine discipline issues, according to Irene Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.
"Our big security problem has been keeping both students and faculty safe from outside intruders," says Dandridge.
Several teachers and staff members interviewed this week say they have few concerns about their personal safety in the schools.
"I think things have improved," says James Toney, a social studies teacher at Francis M. Wood Alternative High School. He cites the dress code, tough policies against weapons and diligent anti-drug efforts.
Bessie Edmonds, a guidance secretary at Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School, says staff members are highly visible throughout the school, a factor that may add to the sense of security.
"I've been here 24 years, and I've never felt unsafe."