Ex-troublemakers recruited to solve conflicts in schools


As Ramon Burks explained it, he used to be one of the kids who brought trouble to Robert Poole Middle School. Now he tries to keep it out.

"I was the type who would walk down the hall and just push people out of the way," he said at the Safe Schools Summit, a meeting called yesterday for students to share with school officials their experiences of violence. By listening to the young people, officials hope to develop plans to make Baltimore's schools safer.

After watching a few of his friends head off to disciplinary schools and come back with different attitudes, young Burks decided there was a better way. He straightened up. He joined the school patrol.

"Then I saw that people were respecting me for different reasons," he said.

Last year, when school officials were looking for students to sign up for a course on resolving disputes among their peers without violence, Ramon volunteered.

The peer conflict resolution course, which was backed by various legal organizations in the city, taught the students to talk things out instead of fighting over them.

"We wanted them to know that they could have a war of words, not one of fists or even guns," said Annabelle Sher of the school superintendent's office.

"When we picked the students for the program -- we could only take 25 and about 400 were interested -- we tried to choose not only the leaders that the teachers and staff recognized, but leaders that the students recognized who might not be that popular with the staff."

Those 25 received three days of instruction in downtown legal offices before returning to their school as conflict resolvers.

"This program works," city schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said. "We have had measurable success at Poole with it. A lot of people there said the problems couldn't be solved, things were just too entrenched, that we'd just as well tear the school down. We proved them wrong."

Dr. Amprey made clear that an expansion of the peer conflict resolution program would be a cornerstone of his plans to combat violence in the schools.

"Sometimes maybe in the lunch room, somebody will say that someone put something in his food," Ramon said, explaining his new role. "They start arguing, then they come to me to help. First thing I do is take them out of the lunchroom. Then I listen to both sides. I've got to be impartial.

"What I try to do is let them come to a way of resolving it, instead of telling them what they should do," said Ramon, who is about to start ninth grade at City College.

"A lot of the problems we have at Poole are racial incidents that start outside the building," he said. "What happens when they get inside the building depends on who brings them in and how we deal with them when they get there."

Yesterday's summit was attended by about 150 people -- administrators, teachers, parents, school police and students. It grew out of the work of the Safe School Day Committee, chaired by the Rev. Emmett C. Burns, that was formed in the wake of several violent incidents last year.

"I was born in 1940," Mr. Burns said. "When I was growing up, we had a lot of the problems kids have today, but the schools were a sanctuary from them. We have to make the schools a sanctuary once again."

Anna Kakavas of Patterson High School also described herself as a former problem for the school system.

"I used to be a troubled student," she said. "I would cut classes, play hooky, disrespect my teachers. People were constantly telling me that I was bright, that I could do well. But all I cared about was hanging out with my friends. I was frequently put on disciplinary removal.

"But I got tired of it. I decided that I wanted to get something out of life. So in one year, I took my grades from 50s to 90s."

She told of the constant reports of fights and confrontations that would sweep through her school and the anticipation of who was going to take on whom at which bus stop at the end of the day.

Her suggestions for improving the situation included designated safe houses in the neighborhood where students could go if trouble erupted. She also thought that teachers should keep an eye on the hallways between classes and check the bathrooms more often.

Participants in yesterday's summit at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School also ventured suggestions that ranged from raising students' self-esteem and increasing parental participation to concrete proposals for metal detectors, a ban on opaque book bags and an anonymous hot line for students.

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