Although anxiety about school safety hasn't abated since the Columbine High School shootings last year, the number of students found with guns in Maryland schools has dropped by more than half in the past two years.
"I think it is good news because the numbers show that we are making progress," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who is expected to join other state educators and officials to announce the decline at a news conference this morning. "But we all know that one gun in a school is too many."
In the 1996-1997 school year, Maryland's public schools expelled 73 students for taking guns to schools. That number fell to 64 in 1997-1998 -- in line with the decline nationally -- and dropped again to 31 in 1998-1999 -- five middle school pupils and 26 high school students.
Baltimore recorded the most significant decline. City schools expelled 40 students with guns in 1997-1998. Fourteen were expelled for possessing a gun last school year.
Federal law requires expulsion of all students who take guns to school. It also requires such cases to be reported -- which state educators say makes the number of student expulsions the best available statistic to track the number of incidents involving handguns or rifles in Maryland schools.
Officials don't attribute the decline to any single action. They offer at least a portion of the credit to steps taken in the past few years by state and local school systems.
Probation officers are assigned to 120 schools across the state. That number is expected to rise next year by 35 officers with a $1 million boost in the governor's budget. More school systems also have added full- or part-time police officers to staffs.
"There's been an impact from some of the systemic things we've been trying to implement, including behavioral work with the University of Maryland and Sheppard Pratt and more peer counseling and tutoring," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "I think that by offering students alternative approaches to their behavior, we are helping to cut down on students who might turn to guns or violence to solve their problems."
The governor's proposed budget for next year includes an additional $16 million to improve school safety, including expanding after-school programs and installing telephones in classrooms. Following up on a statewide safety summit attended by 800 students in November, the budget also offers $50,000 in grants to spur student ideas on how to improve safety.
Today's announcement on guns in Maryland's schools is expected to be made at a news conference at Lindale/Brooklyn Park Middle School in Anne Arundel County. The state also is scheduled to unveil a new toll-free hot line for students to anonymously report dangerous situations in their schools.
"The hot line comes from a suggestion that we've heard from young people," Townsend said. "We find that young people often don't know where to turn to report things that are worrying them."
Officials had promised the hot line several months ago but it was held up by technical difficulties. It is scheduled to begin operation today at the phone number 1-877-MD-NO-FEAR (1-877-636-6332).
All calls will be answered by Maryland State Police -- the criminal intelligence division staff or the headquarters duty officer -- and information will be passed to the appropriate local police department, said Maj. Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman. It will work like other anonymous crime-reporting hot lines, he said.
"We're hoping it can be a way for people to anonymously pass along information that they might not otherwise because of fear of retribution or other reasons," Shipley said. "It's not a new concept, but it is as it relates to schools."
Such hot lines have become increasingly popular in other school systems and states in the past year or two, particularly after the series of school shootings that have occurred across the country, including at Columbine in Colorado last spring. In some of those cases, other students were aware that violence had been threatened but did not report it to adults.
AT&T; Corp. -- which has donated wireless phones to schools across the state to try to boost safety -- has pledged to support the hot line for at least two years, including giving $25,000 to operate it and publicize it among students, company spokeswoman Candi Humphrey said.
Anne Arundel 1 2
Baltimore 40 14
Baltimore Co. 4 0
Caroline 1 0
Charles 1 0
Garrett 2 0
Harford 1 3
Montgomery 4 0
Prince George's 9 10
Queen Anne's 0 1
Wicomico 1 1
Maryland 64 31