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Officials take on bus safety

The Baltimore Sun

School, transit and police officials told city lawmakers yesterday that they have taken steps to improve student safety on city buses in the wake of a recent spate of violence.

Baltimore police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III told the city delegation that as a result of the incidents, he has ordered the creation of "buffer zones" around 18 city schools, most of them middle schools, with a dedicated officer assigned to staff them in the mornings and afternoons.

"The only reason they can leave that post is for a life-threatening emergency call," Bealefeld said.

After a relative dearth of violence on the regional transit system last year, a string of assaults in December, most of them involving students, has aroused the concern of lawmakers who represent the city, said Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Democrat who chairs the city's delegation.

On Dec. 4, a 26-year-old woman was injured in a daytime attack in Hampden, beaten and kicked by a group of middle-school students on the No. 27 bus. Nine juveniles were arrested, and none has been returned to school, city schools Chief Executive Officer Andres Alonso said yesterday.

The next week, two passengers on a No. 64 bus in Brooklyn were attacked by a group of five men. On Dec. 18 two juveniles were arrested after a girl was stabbed in the arm on a No. 51 bus near Mondawmin Mall.

Most recently, a 14-year-old boy out after curfew was shot and wounded on a bus in West Baltimore on Dec. 26.

Maryland Transit Administration head Paul J. Wiedefeld said that only about 80 percent of on-bus surveillance cameras are working but that he hopes to have 95 percent of them in operation soon.

Before the morning meeting began, the transit agency's police chief, David C. Franklin, said he had about 150 uniformed officers statewide, but only about 30 in Baltimore. Wiedefeld said he has asked the governor for funding for 12 more officers.

About 30,000 to 35,000 city students use its transit facilities each day, according to the MTA, and at peak hours there are as many as 700 buses on city streets.

Alonso said the spike in bus violence was an anomaly and stressed that law enforcement alone would not solve it.

"The key is to continue to keep these students in school," he said, noting that students who are dropouts, have a history of truancy or have been held back are more likely to become juvenile offenders.

Alonso and police officials from the various agencies have been meeting weekly to coordinate their efforts because as students travel to and from schools, they cross various police jurisdictions.

"In an ideal world, I would be running my own bus system for middle schools kids," he said. "That happens in other jurisdictions so there is supervision and a sense of safety. ... That has not been the practice of the city, and clearly we are in no position to do that now."

Bealefeld also said he has introduced a new emergency dispatch code to assist bus drivers, which would "supersede any other call" and require police to respond "within seconds" to any call from a bus driver.

An otherwise cordial discussion between the lawmakers and officials took a jarring tone when Del. Frank M. Conaway Jr., a city Democrat, stood up and lambasted the visitors for not doing more to demand better behavior from students.

"Do you understand what I'm trying to say to you?" Conaway said. "Maybe we're not communicating. Maybe we're having a loving discussion this morning."

He glared at the visitors for several seconds. "No, we're talking about our children, and we're going to have to get real with this," he said. "If you don't want to step up, step down."

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