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Schools see fear of violence


Disruptive behavior in some Baltimore County secondary schools has "reached a level never heretofore experienced," but fears of violence and crime -- even where little occur -- are just as pervasive and "must be addressed as vigorously as actual violence," a report on Baltimore County school behavior says.

"Fear exists even in those schools that have minimal experience with violence or disruption. A single incident, that may appear minor in some other schools, may spark fear through the building," according to the report, which will be released today.

The report -- produced by a 52-member committee headed by former county Police Chief Cornelius J. Behan -- concludes, however, that among large school systems, Baltimore County's 158-school system is one of the safest in the country for both students and employees.

It points out that inconsistent policies, inadequate staff training and frequent transfer of teachers and administrators are hindering the schools from doing an even better job with disruptive youngsters.

The report, which has been expected since early spring, will be officially released at a noon press conference and formally presented to the school board at its regular meeting at 8 o'clock tonight. Neither Superintendent Stuart Berger nor Mr. Behan would talk about the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun.

"It's a thoughtful analysis of conditions in the Baltimore County schools," said school system spokesman William Lawrence. "It makes a point that Baltimore County schools are not a violent system . . . but that there are issues that need to be addressed."

The 90-page report does not name specific schools with problems of violence or crime, nor does it calculate the number of violent or disruptive incidents in the schools or make comparisons with other years.

The committee members included students, parents, teachers, administrators, police officers and community residents who visited schools and studied student behavior over a period of five months that began in October.

The report contains dozens of recommendations for preventing the schools from deteriorating to a level of violence experienced in many large systems. Some recommendations deal with the mechanics of discipline and many with the causes.

For instance, one recommendation suggests that the superintendent encourage "age-appropriate bedtimes" to reduce fatigue and chronic irritability that lead to behavior problems.

Among the major roadblocks to handling and preventing violent and disruptive behavior is inconsistency in school policies and practices, the report said.

"What is disruptive behavior and how it is addressed in one school often varies from other schools," the report said. "Whether the offense is abusive language, disruption to a class or assault, how it is handled is . . . established by the principal and assistant principals," rather than through a countywide policy.

The inconsistency stems from site-based management, a decentralized system that allows each principal to make individual decisions and set some policies for his or her schools. "Without more structure and a more centralized system of checks and balances regarding school-based management . . . the schools risk becoming a conglomerate of over 158 independent school systems."

Site-based management and the resulting inconsistencies were cited two weeks ago as at the root of some problems in the county's gifted-and-talented programs, when an independent study on that subject was released.

The behavior report further stated that principals are often influenced by a numbers game, when it comes to suspensions and expulsions, and by a fear of negative publicity. "Too often, statistics and image were more important to some principals than a quality educational environment," the report stated.

The group visited schools, talking with students, teachers and administrators, and taking phone and mail comments from county residents. The work was divided among five subcommittees: students and families, policies and procedures, community interaction, values and faculty, administration and staff.

Among the other findings, the report says:

* The schools are in an excellent position to prevent crime and violence from growing and to reduce disruptive behavior, but there are no quick fixes.

* There is inadequate staff development, especially in managing student behavior, coping with violent behavior and setting procedures for suspension and expulsion.

* In schools with the greatest number of problems, assistant principals, who traditionally handle discipline problems, are overwhelmed; their offices are filled with students sent because of disruptive behavior, but unruly students are returned to classrooms.

* Rotation of staff and administrators is excessive in some schools, disruptive and counterproductive.

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