Superintendent Walter G. Amprey defended Baltimore schools' anti-violence efforts yesterday, saying new programs this fall will make schools safer and improve on a systemwide anti-violence plan first drafted in 1991.
Dr. Amprey disputed the recent conclusions of a city grand jury advising Baltimore to replace piecemeal school anti-crime programs with a comprehensive, citywide plan.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has responded to the grand jury's report by saying that such a plan is needed.
"I don't agree that the school system and the city have not been involved in a comprehensive effort," Dr. Amprey said. "The schools are putting together programs that are not only comprehensive but are national models."
Those programs include new learning centers for disruptive students, intended to relieve classrooms of troublemakers and give those students a chance to change and then return to their schools. One will serve students from four elementary schools in Cherry Hill.
Six are prevention-oriented programs for disruptive but nonviolent middle schoolers, designed by principals during the summer and opening at sites around the city in recent weeks.
Yesterday, Dr. Amprey said these efforts aimed at disruptive students should satisfy a directive this spring by the General Assembly that ordered the city to open an alternative school for violent and disruptive students.
However, the sponsor of the bill and the teachers who lobbied for its passage contend the efforts do not.
In addition, this year, the system will expand the use of an anti-gun curriculum to at least a dozen more schools; re-emphasize its call for students and staff to report school crime to police; and add the Garrison Boulevard corridor to its after-school "Safe Haven" program designating shelters for children who become fearful while walking home from school, Dr. Amprey said.
He also said the system plans to expand conflict-mediation training for students and staff, and eventually to use its training center to coordinate all school violence prevention programs.
City school officials are discussing the possibility of hiring more school police, despite the current budget shortfall of at least $27 million, he said.
"We recognize that this increase in violent crime is unprecedented," Dr. Amprey said. "I think the schools reflect what is happening in the community. It's enough of a problem we've made [safety] one of our strategic goals."
School policies give principals room to seek suspension or expulsion for students who are assaultive or violent, he said. He emphasized he does not want a school system that stigmatizes students.
"I'm concerned about the overemphasis on putting kids away. They have got to and should make mistakes -- it's a learning experience; it involves learning values."
The six alternative centers for middle school students -- called "APEX" centers, short for "Achieving Personal Excellence" -- should provide that opportunity for rehabilitation and for prevention, he added. Teams of staff teachers, social workers, psychologists and aides will identify the cause of the students' disruptive behavior, then try to teach coping skills while helping the students keep up with their schoolwork.
The centers may reduce the need for suspensions by directing help to students before behavior reaches intolerable levels, said principals who organized them.
"We're looking at students who are verbally abusive toward students and staff, students who fight with their peers, class cutters, class walkers," said one organizer, Idalyn Hauss, principal of the Upton School, the city's home- schooling program serving students who are sick or expelled.
While praising the concept for its prevention orientation, the Baltimore Teachers Union and state Del. Tony Fulton have criticized the school system for claiming that these centers will satisfy the law calling for an alternative school. The union had asked Mr. Fulton to sponsor the House bill that resulted in the law.
Last spring, teachers who had suffered injuries at the hands of students testified before state legislators, asking them to force Baltimore to move anti-social and dangerous teens to programs where they will receive help.
The school system's six new "APEX" centers were not designed to handle students who assault teachers or who are involved in gun or drug crime, said coordinator Sheila Kolman, president of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association, which convinced the school board to allocate $1.5 million to start the centers this year.
Some learning centers will serve as transition programs for students returning to school after suspensions, expulsions or legal decisions, Ms. Kolman said.