The Baltimore school system's patchwork approach to curbing crime has failed to reduce a growing problem of student violence, a grand jury has concluded.
After a four-month study of school crime, the grand jury said the district's safety programs at individual schools provide only a "piecemeal" solution and should be expanded citywide.
"What we are suggesting is they are good but not enough," said Nancy A. Miller, the chairwoman of the grand jury's subcommittee on school crime. In addition, the school system needs stronger and clearer policies for handling student misconduct, and a larger school police force, the jurors recommended.
The grand jury's report comes as school officials confirm the number of violent and gun-related incidents in city schools has increased dramatically. Last week, a school police report showed that some of the most serious crimes -- robbery and possession of a deadly weapon -- had nearly doubled in a year. The grand jury looked back to 1990 and found sharp increases in every category of violent crime.
Yesterday, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke agreed with many of the grand jury's conclusions.
"The biggest problem is that the schools are [seeing] the violent behavior that young people are engaging in in their neighborhoods, and we have not yet developed an effective strategy of dealing with that violence," he said.
Although in the past he has pledged more positions for the school police force, the mayor said he is still not ready to significantly increase or arm school police officers. School police have asked to carry firearms; currently, those assigned to work in school carry batons and pepper mace.
"There needs to be a comprehensive plan before we go to the issue of increasing school police," Mr. Schmoke said. "I think the most important thing for us to do is to get those [violent] students out of the regular classrooms, but we've got to do it in a way that is going to make them better so they can return to school, and not just transfer the problem from school to school."
He called on the school board and Schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey to clear up the mixed messages sent by disciplinary practices that shift chronic troublemakers around the school system and do not isolate them.
The grand jurors began their investigation with a special charge to study school violence.
Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr., who is president of the Baltimore City Bar Association, asked them to pursue the topic in order to further discussions among policy makers about children and crime. The issue came to his attention when the bar
association's Committee for Baltimore's Children studied the health and safety of city children last year, he said.
Judge Matricciani said he hoped that the grand jury report would prompt an impartial examination of schools' anti-crime programs.
"Part of what motivated me was seeing what was happening," Judge Matricciani said. "I'm surprised, unhappily, when I see that sort of thing and I imagine myself if I were a person who's attending school and wanting to learn. If you are in fear for yourself and if the teacher is in fear, how much learning can take place?"
Working throughout the summer, the grand jury visited school programs and interviewed city officials, advocates for children, and groups that independently have studied school violence, including the bar's committee. The jurors' recommendations include:
* Develop and enforce a clear policy regarding school behavior and the consequences for misconduct
* Find out what prevention programs already exist so the efforts may be evaluated and duplicated in a coordinated fashion.
* Increase the number of school police officers.
* Increase the training and resources for teachers who must manage disruptive youth.
Superintendent Amprey said many of the grand jury's recommendations address issues that the school system is working on.
This year, he said, the school administration opened an office that will eventually coordinate school safety programs and conflict resolution programs. Also, schools have expanded their efforts to deal with disruptive students, he said.
Students contacted about school crime said suspension practices are confusing.
"It's not all the students, but if someone commits a crime, they're back in school in a month, so there are a lot of students who say, 'So what? Nothing will happen to you,' " said Heather Giles, a senior at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.
In schools with crime problems, some said, students feel safer in school than outside. There are too few after-school activities, peer programs, lessons in conflict resolution. In addition, there is no good way to encourage students and parents to share their concerns about violence, said the school leaders attending a citywide student council meeting.
School board members said a major obstacle to addressing crime has been inefficient record-keeping. The school system files crime reports chronologically, so officials cannot pinpoint the problem schools and communities.
Last week, Mr. Schmoke directed the school police to sort its crime reports by school and report on the findings.