Out of school, risking violence

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore students who were murdered or shot had poor school attendance before they fell victim to the violence, according to new data released yesterday by the school system and health department.

Between 2003 and 2007, 115 youths in Baltimore were killed, and 405 were victims of non-fatal shootings, Health Department figures show. The school system was able to retrieve attendance data going back to 1999 for 391 of the 520 total victims. The Health Department pooled the data from the two agencies.

The youths were absent from school an average of 46 days annually, and more than two-thirds of them had been suspended or expelled at least once.

The data are intended to illustrate the public health implications of truancy and suspension as city schools chief Andres Alonso tries to get the entire community involved in improving Baltimore's educational system. Alonso also is urging principals to find alternatives to suspension for nonviolent offenses to keep students off the streets.

"Many, many of our students end up as victims of homicides and shootings, and we see the correlation to the fact that they're not in school," Alonso told reporters yesterday. He said what's happening to those students is "a dereliction of duty" by the community.

The release of the information comes on the heels of several high-profile incidents of violence involving Baltimore's schools and students, which prompted Alonso to issue a public call for community volunteers.

In the latest incident, a mother interrupted a class yesterday morning at Calverton Elementary/Middle and started a fight with the teacher.

Calverton has been under lockdown twice in the past month because of shootings in the neighborhood, and on Sunday, two 13-year-old students allegedly broke into the school, and one has been accused of trying to rape a staff member who was there doing extra work.

Among the findings of the review, which examined the attendance files of 83 homicide victims and 308 non-fatal shooting victims:

Youths who became victims of homicides and shootings attended an average of 105 days of school per academic year, an attendance rate of 68 percent. While an academic year has 180 days, the students were enrolled for an average of only 151 days, likely indicating that they were frequently moving between schools.

Before the homicide or shooting, 261 victims - 67 percent - were suspended or expelled at least once.

Victims who were suspended or expelled had an average of 2.2 suspensions or expulsions per academic year. They missed an average of 14.6 days of school per year because of suspensions and expulsions.

"Problems with attendance, suspension, and expulsion place youth at risk not only for school failure, but also for severe injury or death from violence," wrote the city's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, in a letter to Alonso detailing his staff's findings.

In the letter, Sharfstein says it's likely that the results are underestimates, in part because the review did not include suspensions that schools imposed but did not report to the system's central office.

Sharfstein and Alonso said they are continuing to merge data from their two departments to show the broader implications of what happens - or doesn't happen - in schools.

Alonso has faced criticism within the system for urging principals to find alternatives to suspension for nonviolent offenses. While he has been clear that schools must suspend students for violence, some have taken his guidance as a directive not to suspend at all.

But Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III applauded Alonso's efforts.

"When these kids are suspended or expelled, they don't volunteer their time in a soup kitchen," Bealefeld said. "They wait outside the school or just outside the school property and victimize the other kids. That is what they do. He [Alonso] knows that, I know that, all the kids who go to the school know that."

Bealefeld said that the police department can help by stepping up truancy arrests and targeted juvenile arrests.

He said the findings of the review are consistent with what he sees in the streets.

"I am not surprised that bad kids don't go to school," he said. "I'm not surprised that the victims of homicides get in trouble in schools. I don't think it is news, but what is newsworthy and what is a positive thing in this whole situation is Dr. Alonso's commitment to fixing something that has problems."

Next academic year, as principals have more control over their individual school budgets, Alonso has urged them to use their discretionary money to develop in-school suspension programs.

The link between school attendance and homicide is clear in the case of Barbara Griffin, an 18-year-old who was shot and killed last summer outside West Baltimore's Bentalou Elementary School.

As a sixth-grader, Griffin transferred to four different schools and was suspended for bringing a knife to school. At the time of her death, she was enrolled in Woodbourne Day School, which serves students with emotional problems. She was enrolled there, off and on, for four and a half years and advanced only from ninth grade to 10th grade in that time.

Meanwhile, she joined a Bloods gang and ran wild on the streets as her family slipped into poverty. Her murder case remains open.

In late November last year, Ty'wonde M. Jones, 13, was stabbed to death, and his body was found in a Park Heights alley. The boy was among the youngest homicide victims of 2007.

When he was in elementary school, he had excelled. But entering seventh grade at Garrison Middle School, he began staying out late at night and hanging out with a rough crowd. "I talked to him. I punished him. I grounded him," his grandmother, Annabel Jones-Tillman, told The Sun after he died.

About a week before he was killed, Ty'wonde was suspended because he and some other kids jumped and beat another boy at school. His suspension hearing was set for the week after his death.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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