School violence study should focus on adults


The Baltimore Teachers Union has asked me to join its task force on school violence. The panel of parents, educators and other members of the community is scheduled to meet for the first time Thursday. It is to report on its recommendations by February.

Unfortunately, the canons of my profession prevent me from participating. Generally speaking, journalists do not get personally involved in organizations or events that affect public policy and generate news. If we join, we lose our credibility as reporters.

Therefore, I am going to tell you now how I feel about this growing problem of school violence. First, here's a controversial premise: City children are not savage, little monsters -- even those children who live in inner city communities and who come from troubled homes.

If children are running amok in city schools, it is because the adults in the system have lost control.

Thus, I would have argued against the task force's wasting valuable time merely documenting the extent of violence in the schools. We already know children are misbehaving. During the 1992-93 school year, there were 14,106 disciplinary removals in the city, 2,052 expulsions and 2,609 arrests. Police reported 56 cases of assault with a deadly weapon on school property and 199 weapons confiscated.

We also know that city students come laden with more burdens than kids in any other jurisdiction in the state. They live in the most financially needy households. They are more likely to have physical or developmental learning disabilities, and to live with an adult who is abusing drugs or alcohol. Psychologists say some inner city children have seen as many of their playmates die violently as have children living in a war zone.

So, let us not belabor the obvious. Urban youths in general -- and Baltimore students in particular -- already rank among the most analyzed creatures on earth.

The school system currently has at least two other groups studying school violence and there have been numerous studies in the past. Meanwhile, the system is experimenting with an Afro-centric curriculum in some schools, with a conflict mediation program in others, with school-based management, and with privatization -- all in an attempt to raise self esteem in students, reduce violence and improve achievement.

Public health officials, educators, psychologists and journalists all have conducted research on city children.

Many publicly and privately funded groups are testing their pet projects in individual schools. Laboratory rats are not poked and prodded and experimented upon as often.

I would have sought to focus the task force's attention on the grown-ups instead of the children: on teachers' attitudes about the school population, on their instructional competence and on their behaviors when confronted by disruptive students.

Some city teachers tell me that they live in constant terror in the classroom, that their students show no respect for authority and fear no consequences. But other city teachers insist that most of their children come to school eager to learn and are willing to respect those adults who respect them.

I suspect that a teacher's fear in the classroom is, in part, an indicator of competence. We do not need a study to tell us that incompetent, fearful teachers ought to be weeded out.

Finally, I would disband the city's school police force and replace it with educators trained in crisis intervention. No other jurisdiction in this state feels it necessary to maintain a police presence in the schools. When you have a school patrolled by police officers wearing body armor, you are telling the children of that school that adults perceive them all as potential menaces to society. You define all kids as prison bait.

Superintendent Walter G. Amprey seems to agree with me. Since assuming the helm of the troubled school system three years ago, he has sought to redefine the role of the school police, while training teachers to deal effectively with disruptive students. But he has moved carefully -- mindful perhaps that this culture of distaste toward urban students has been years in the making and cannot be chipped away overnight.

Were I a member of the task force, my advice to Dr. Amprey would be succinct: move faster.

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