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Gun crimes up in city schools Bigger urban systems trail Baltimore in growing violence; Better or underreporting?; Other cities say they have cut weapons use

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore schools -- whose efforts to curb student violence have not been adequate, according to a recent grand jury -- saw more gun-related crimes last year than many larger urban school systems, a comparison of annual crime reports shows.

The contrast to other of the nation's cities comes as Baltimore school officials report a sharp increase in crime overall and of incidents involving deadly weapons. Critics point to a lack of a comprehensive program locally -- and other cities to the lack of widespread use of metal detectors -- to deal with crime and weapon possession in the classroom.

Yet in Miami, Detroit, New York, Memphis, Tenn. and other urban school systems that have citywide anti-gun campaigns and zero tolerance policies for students, reports of gun possession or gun use declined last year. Several of them also used metal detectors to remove guns from students' hands.

Because school crime nationally is considered underreported, some safety authorities say Baltimore's rising statistics may offer only a glimpse of a bigger problem. Others say the increase represents improved reporting. Either way, there are too many deadly weapons in Baltimore schools, these authorities agreed.

"If those numbers are as high as you say they are, then it's a call to take community action," said Bill Modzeleski, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Safe and Drug Free Schools program. "It's a call for parents and students and law enforcement and social service agencies alike to try to figure out what actions are necessary to get the guns out of schools."

Baltimore's surge in school crime generally mirrors the increasing juvenile violence reported across the city, state and nation. Since 1989, juvenile crime -- especially weapons violations and violent crime -- has risen markedly across the country, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report.

Officials use juvenile arrests as their measure, but acknowledge there are many more incidents occurring than cases cleared by arrest. Between 1990 and 1994, for example, Maryland juvenile arrests for weapons possession increased by 61 percent.

In Baltimore during the past five years, the total number of juvenile arrests decreased by about 7 percent, but arrests for violent crimes increased by 12.4 percent.

Between 1990 and 1994, gun crimes in the school system increased. Baltimore school police records show 122 incidents last year, the last time that many occurred was in 1983. Of the 122 incidents last year, 63 were possession of firearms; the rest were assaults and robberies in which guns were used. In just one year, Baltimore schools' total reported incidents doubled to 6,283 from 2,959. Common assaults -- 1,779 -- and possession of a deadly weapon -- 407 -- nearly doubled.

Acts of violence increased in many other cities' schools also -- but, more often, without guns, some school districts reported for last year.

Reports of gun possession or gun use declined in Philadelphia; Detroit; New York; Portland, Ore.; Dade County, Fla. (Miami); and San Mateo County, Calif. (Oakland-San Jose), according to an informal survey two weeks ago by the National School Safety Center, a justice data clearinghouse based in California.

'There is a decline'

School security officials and spokesmen contacted in those cities were cautiously hopeful but not satisfied. It is too early to declare victory, they point out, because they only count the weapons they discover.

Nevertheless, in many school districts, Mr. Modzeleski said, "I do think there is a decline in students bringing weapons to school. I do believe the laws are having a better effect, but it may take a year and better record-keeping to see what the impact is."

The laws he referred to mandate expulsion for students caught with deadly weapons. Maryland's new law took effect this month, and expels for a year students who bring guns to school.

Such mandates, when strictly enforced, have proven effective in reducing the numbers of guns carried into schools, said spokesmen for school districts that have reported progress. They also reported success with citywide anti-weapons campaigns and curricula -- and increased security.

With 302,000 students, Dade County, Fla., had twice Baltimore's enrollment but fewer gun incidents last year. Although the level has fluctuated in recent years, it dropped by half from 228 in 1992-1993 down to 110 last year, school spokesmen said. The county school system -- which serves the Miami region -- uses metal detectors to deter students from carrying weapons, they said.

New York City schools, with a million students, reported handgun possession cases dropped by 25 percent. Officials there estimate, however, that half of all security incidents are not reported to authorities.

Random searches

Although violent crime increased, tougher security helped Philadelphia to discourage gun possession last year, said John J. McLees, executive director for school safety. Random weapons searches with hand-held metal detectors in 1993 netted 45 handguns and 40 pellet or BB guns, he said. After the school population increased from 211,000 to about 214,000, last year, the patrols increased by more than 10 percent.

"One thing we learned is if we went back to the school, we were collecting less," Mr. McLees said. He considers as a sign of progress the reduced number of firearms they found: 36 handguns and 30 pellet and BB guns.

To reduce gun incidents, Memphis schools have relied on a broad education campaign, including peer mediation programs, alternative programs for disruptive students and a hot line service that pays rewards for student tips leading the recovery of weapons.

These efforts -- in a school district almost identical to Baltimore's in size and demographics -- have reduced the number of incidents involving firearms, said Larry Hill, director of security. Handgun cases decreased from 92 in 1992-1993 to 77 last school year, and the hot line led officials to confiscate more than 60 guns and hundreds of knives, he said.

Memphis had its first fatal shooting of a student in school last month, proving that one gun is too many. The public outcry following the killing has prompted the district to begin drafting policies to use metal detectors, Mr. Hill said.

Why Baltimore's gun crime is increasing while these other school districts are reporting declines is not clear. Officials attribute the rise to better reporting.

"As schools have started to crack down on the issue and create policies, the number of incidents [reported] tends to go up because the school system is handling them openly rather than quietly," said June Arnette, communications director for the National School Safety Center, Westlake, Calif. The numbers may dip later as enforcement pays off.

She cautions against complacency, however. It is possible "it's been bad all along, or we are defining things differently or doing something differently," Ms. Arnette said.

Another possible explanation was suggested in the conclusions of the city grand jury, which reviewed Baltimore schools' programs this summer.

The grand jury called on Baltimore to replace its patchwork of efforts with consistent enforcement practices, tougher policies and a comprehensive plan for reducing school violence. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke agreed, and said the starting place must be a change in the way Baltimore collects school-crime data. Officials have begun demanding school-by-school detail so they can identify crime trends and problem schools and neighborhoods.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said he has asked his district commanders to work closely with principals, who sometimes prefer to handle minor incidents themselves and don't want the stigma of crime attached to their schools.

Those directives, though, are expected to take some time to take effect.

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