Though they reported more gun incidents, weapons possession and robbery, Baltimore schools saw a slight drop in overall crime in the first half of this school year.
While serious offenses increased, common assaults, petty thefts, trespassing and disorderly conduct all declined significantly in the first semester, school police reports say.
Meanwhile, officials are pressing ahead with a series of Safe Schools initiatives, including adding five school police officers and an anonymous hot line staffed by school police (396-8591) for students to report guns, gang fights or other problems.
"I think we definitely are improving," said school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, who presented a lengthy review of school safety efforts yesterday at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School.
"I'm not real happy with specific reductions of numbers yet," the superintendent said. "I'm seeing some baby steps."
The superintendent has made school safety one of his three top priorities this year, along with increased attendance and academic performance. He insists that principals and staff be measured at year-end against their progress in those areas. So far this year, however, the crime picture in the system's 178 schools is mixed.
Among the trends reported in the first semester of this year are:
* A slight increase in gun incidents, 28 in the first five months, compared with 25 in the first four months the 1992 school year.
* A total of 25 robberies, nine involving firearms, in the first semester. Last year, there were 19 robberies in the first semester, just one involving a gun.
* A total of 83 instances of deadly weapons possession, up from 66 in the same period a year before.
* A slight decrease in assaults with a deadly weapon, 24 incidents in the first five months, five of them with guns, down from 30 in the same period last year, six of them with guns.
(In October, a veteran school custodian was fatally stabbed after she apparently interrupted a burglary at Calverton Middle School.)
* A total of 395 common assaults on students, staff and school police, down from 435 in the same period last year.
* A significant drop in the number of times school police got involved in such disciplinary incidents as minor assault, minor theft and disruptive behavior, a total of 263 cases, down from 359 in the first five months of last year.
Yesterday, Dr. Amprey attempted to put the best face on the increase in gun incidents, saying that "there is an increase in detection, but not in the use. . . . The good news is it is being detected."
The problem of weapons in school is hardly limited to Baltimore.
A 1991 study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in five high school students nationwide reported carrying a weapon at least once in the month preceding the survey.
But Larry Burgan, school police chief, cites better reporting and detection -- not a higher level of weapons possession -- for Baltimore's first-semester increase in gun incidents.
"In some cases, parents will call the school and say, 'I think my kid is carrying a gun. There's something missing from the house.' " In other cases, frightened students may report a gun in another student's locker, he said.
And the higher number of robberies may include incidents that took place in the vicinity of the school, rather than within the school itself, he said.
On the other hand, most of the decline in school crime this year comes in the area of misdemeanors, including assault and disorderly conduct, where school police have a certain amount of discretion in pressing charges.
In the past, Dr. Amprey has said that school staff and police sometimes are too quick to charge students in disciplinary cases.
But in an interview earlier this week, the superintendent denied that the school system was in any way "cooking" the numbers to show a decrease in crime, saying, "My sense of it is, there really is a reduction."
At yesterday's event, Dr. Amprey presided as school staffers and community volunteers described their efforts to make the schools safer.
Their work includes mediation and conciliation programs aimed at cutting the number of fights, increasing the use of hall monitors, and establishing locally designed safety plans at every school.
In addition, five new police officers start work Monday, bringing the force to a total of 85 officers in the schools.
That figure is still below the authorized strength of 103 officers.
Parents worry about school crime, but see a commitment on the part of the administration to make schools safer, said Grace Clark, president of the District Advisory Committee, a group of elected representatives from all schools in the city.
"I think a lot of the concerns have to do with things the school system can't do a lot about," she added. "The whole drug phenomenon is something that is a problem in the city generally." Those worries intensify when children attend school outside their own neighborhoods, something that generally starts in middle school, she added.