Schools to combat gangs

The Baltimore Sun

Responding to a state demand, city schools officials have drafted a schools safety plan filled with initiatives that they say will address an upswing in student gang violence.

Schools police chief Antonio Williams said his staff has identified about 30 schools that have gangs in them. Nearly all are middle and high schools. Williams defined a gang as three or more students looking to commit crimes and further their affiliation with each other through threats and intimidation.

To combat the rising gang activity, the school system's budget for next school year - approved last week by the school board - contains an additional $1 million for more school police officers and $1.8 million for more hall monitors. It also allocates $300,000 to implement and coordinate the efforts outlined in the safety plan.

The plan, which will be presented to the public for input in the coming weeks, was written in response to a requirement that the Maryland State Department of Education handed down last summer.

Interim schools Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston said in an interview that the added money will allow school police officers to teach drug and gang prevention programs, primarily in middle and high schools.

If adopted by the school board and approved by the state, the safety plan would incorporate the Gang Resistance Education and Training program in schools identified as having gang problems.

The nationally recognized program focuses on providing skills to students to help them avoid delinquent behavior and resorting to violence to solve problems. The program claims to have helped more than 4 million students since 1991.

Williams said his staff is also developing a unit that will go to schools and address specific gang issues, and officers will revive the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.

"What we have to do is learn to deal with and manage fear," Williams said. "People are angry, fearful, upset about the presence of gangs. But there is no law against being a gang member. What we want to concentrate on is the behavior, not just the fact that people are walking around saying, 'I'm a gang member.' How are they disrupting the school and interfering with people's safety? That's what we want to get a message out on."

The safety plan calls for the reduction of suspensions, expulsions, arrests and truancy by focusing on initiatives to prevent violence. For example, the plan proposes training teachers in classroom management.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires states to determine which of its schools are "persistently dangerous" and to give students attending those schools the opportunity to transfer elsewhere.

All five of Maryland's "persistently dangerous" middle and high schools are in Baltimore. The state defines a school as "persistently dangerous" based on the number of student suspensions for violent offenses, such as fighting, arson, sexual assaults and assaults on teachers.

Some critics say the label is counterproductive because it uses the number of student suspensions for violent offenses - not the number of offenses that occur. Consequently, some administrators are reluctant to suspend violent students because it might result in a school being stigmatized with the "persistently dangerous" label.

At the same time, advocates from groups including the Open Society Institute have been pushing for in-school suspension programs and other suspension alternatives. They say that allowing violent or misbehaving students to be on the streets during school days only perpetuates crime, drug use and other social ills.

System officials - who included $700,000 for in-school suspension plans in middle schools in next year's budget - said they want to get away from a zero-tolerance policy that requires automatic suspension or expulsion for fighting in school.

"We're not going to police our way out of the problems we're having with school safety," said April Lewis, coordinator of the safety plan. "We have to build relationships between students and adults, between adults and adults, and model what we want students to do."

The system will hold two community forums next month seeking input on the safety plan before the school board votes on it May 15. The plan will then be submitted to the state.

Officials also say they will form community and student advisory committees on school safety.

To develop the draft safety plan, the system teamed up with several outside agencies, including the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, the Family League of Baltimore City, Sheppard Pratt Health System and the mayor's office.

"What I like about this plan, while the school police department is prominent, it's not a school police plan alone," Boston said. "We can think about safety and positive climate and say that it's the role of school police to ensure that happens. There is a role for every person in the district, including the CEO."

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