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City schools lack policy on students' sex offenses

Over the past three years, Baltimore educators have recommended 289 times that students be expelled or suspended for committing sex offenses while in school.

Baltimore school officials say general disciplinary policies -- and Maryland's criminal system -- provide adequate guidance for principals and teachers for handling these types of offenses.

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Yet Maryland's education department strongly recommended more than two years ago that all school districts take an additional step: adopt policies on student sex-related behavior ranging from harassment to violence.

To date, the Baltimore school system is the only district in the state that has not responded to that recommendation, according to Linda A. Shevitz, an administrator in the state education department.

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"I don't think we need a policy around sexual misconduct," city school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said last week. "We expect children to conduct themselves as decent citizens while they are in school.

"There are no procedures that identify how to deal with student sexual behavior per se, but I don't think there should be," Dr. Amprey said. "We're not a court system. We're a school. Policies for violent behavior and disruptive behavior are in place."

Concerns about the schools' policies for addressing sexual activity followed the alleged rape of a 10-year-old girl at North Bend Elementary School last month. Police charged two 10-year-old boys with rape.

The school suspended the two boys and the alleged victim, then, under pressure from the mayor and others in the community, reinstated the girl.

Those decisions have raised questions among many parents, child advocates and educators. Some say the school system's failure to have a specific policy led to the confusing decision making. The fact that so many incidents are occurring in schools seems reason enough to update school policy, others said.

City school officials reported the sex-related suspensions and expulsions in annual reports filed with the state Department of Education. The reports show 107 expulsions or suspensions for sex-related offenses in 1991-1992, 117 in 1992-1993 and 65 in the 1993-1994. The incidents ranged from indecent exposure to inappropriate touching to sexual assaults, with the majority of cases involving offenses that are not felonies.

Claudette McDonald Brown, a lawyer with Advocates for Children and Youth in Baltimore, which provides legal services for students who face expulsion, said the schools need clearer guidelines.

"School has become a place where things that used to happen outside are now happening inside, things that we never imagined, and we have to become prepared to deal with that," Ms. Brown said. "I think that we have to address them. . . . Not addressing them does not stop them from happening."

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In late 1993, prompted by an incident of sexual harassment in an elementary school, Maurice B. Howard, the assistant superintendent of curriculum, formed a committee of school personnel, parents and others to create policies on student sexual harassment and violence.

The Student Sexual Harassment Subcommittee proposed a policy in early 1994. In part, it says: "[The Baltimore schools] will not tolerate any form of [sexual harassment and sexual violence] of, or by, staff or students. The system recognizes the student's right to participate in all school programs and activities in an atmosphere free of any form of sexual harassment. Students have the responsibility not to engage in sexual conduct that is unwelcome or offensive to others."

Nothing adopted

As of last week, nothing had been adopted. And many on the school board said they knew nothing about the effort. The school system's attorney, Avery Aisenstark, said his office is reviewing the proposal.

Ed Freeman, a parent and member of the subcommittee, said a policy would have helped educators better handle last month's alleged rape.

"The incident that just occurred is something they were forewarned about," he said. "They need to know how to respond. There ought to be something in place so you say, 'Everyone will deal with this situation this way.' "

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All teachers and principals are required to report criminal sexual acts to police and to aid in those investigations, said John Wallace, a member of the Office of School Police.

In some cases, however, principals investigate student allegations and decide that a crime did not occur, and so do not notify police of the student's complaint.

A principal could determine that the children were engaged in "unacceptable behavior" -- the general category of offense listed in the student handbook.

But there's no agreed upon, districtwide definition of "unacceptable behavior."

Though Sheila Kolman, president of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association, sees pitfalls to this

approach, she said principals need the freedom to make judgments about students' complaints -- based on their knowledge of their students.

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Violence 'endemic'

Linda A. Shevitz of the office of equity assurance in the state Department of Education said, "The problem of student-on-student sexual harassment and violence is endemic to schools, not just to Baltimore City schools. It's national."

While no hard numbers exist, in one national survey by the American Association of University Women in 1993, 81 percent of students in eighth through 11th grade who responded said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment -- mostly from peers.

Even when it's not considered a crime, such behavior may fit the definition of a civil rights violation, she said. It is covered by Title IX, the federal law that protects students from discrimination based on gender, Ms. Shevitz said.

She said schools need to work with students, parents, community leaders, teachers, principals and others to develop preventive programs and lesson plans.

And those programs, she said, need to focus not on acts of sex, but on social behaviors -- "character training" so students will know what is acceptable and what is not in the community that is a school.

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"The whole thing is climate," Ms. Shevitz said. "What kind of climate do we have that promotes respect of each other?"



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