- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

At Bladensburg High School in Prince George's County, a student is accused of pointing a gun at another student in the bathroom and robbing him. He is suspended and is facing charges from the county police.
At Cabin John Middle School in Montgomery County, an eighth-grader holds a knife with a 5-inch blade to the neck of another male student and threatens to kill him, records show. He is recommended for expulsion and put into an alternative program.
At Laurel High School, a student attacks another with a hammer. The matter is turned over to the police.
In the past few years, area school systems have introduced many measures to make schools safer: more security officers, police officers stationed at schools, metal detectors, X-ray machines, surveillance cameras, guidance counselors. Authorities say the measures have decreased the dangers at school.
Yet the incidents above happened this school year and are just three pages in the thick files on serious incidents in area schools.
National figures show schools are far from safe. In 1999, students between the ages of 12 and 18 were victims of 2.5 million crimes, according to a recent report by the National Center of Education Statistics. Violent incidents such as rape, robbery and aggravated assault accounted for 186,000 of those crimes. The report also showed there were 47 school-associated violent deaths in the country between July 1, 1998, and June 30, 1999.
Precise numbers on security incidents are hard to find, and there are no clear laws on reporting.
Area school systems are protective of their records, when they have them. Fairfax and Prince George's counties denied access, citing privacy issues. The District said it does not keep records detailing the reasons for suspensions and expulsions.
Montgomery County allowed The Washington Times access to its serious incidents file, and just a few months into the school year, the file was at least 2 inches thick.
By mid-November, schools around the county had received five bomb threats and seven anthrax scares. Thirty youths had been caught carrying knives, and many more had been caught either using or carrying drugs and alcohol.
Patrick Fiel, security chief of D.C. public schools, has on his desk a gallery of confiscated weapons souvenirs from his battle against crime in schools. There are the usual items the guns and lighters and more creative ones, such as a sword, and a knife that's been hidden inside a calculator.
"The student who brought this in had hidden it under a trench coat," Mr. Fiel said, pointing to the sword.
In the District, 400 students were caught bringing weapons into schools last year.
In Fairfax County, 110 students were expelled in 1999, the latest year for which figures are available, for bringing weapons to school. The number has shot up since the 1995-96 school year when 39 students were expelled for bringing weapons to school.
In Prince George's County last year, the school system recorded more than 700 incidents of physical attacks against other students and 240 attacks against teachers.

A new concern
September 11 gave school security officials more to worry about. In the District, bomb threats at schools in the month after the terrorist attacks rocketed to 18, compared with two threats during the same month the year before.
A student at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria was questioned after September 11 after a woman called in to say he had a bomblike device in his locker. The call turned out to be a hoax, Assistant Superintendent Jay Johnson said, but security officials were taking no chances.
Anthrax scares also kept school security workers in a state of high alert.
In Prince George's, a fourth-grader at an elementary school was questioned after he blew talcum powder on other students, pretending it was anthrax.
Cardozo High School in Northwest had to be evacuated after an anthrax-contamination hoax in November.
Before September 11, D.C. school security was "on 50 percent alert," Assistant Superintendent Ralph Neal said. Now, "it is at 100 percent."
"We check IDs, scan everyone who comes in through the door. If there are any boxes lying around, we make sure they go through proper security checks," he said.
Other school districts have tightened access to buildings with security staff constantly monitoring all entrances and exits, and employees are required to wear identification tags.
Currently, most schools have hand-held metal detectors, video cameras, and uniformed and plainclothes security officers at schools.
Schools in the District and in Prince George's County have an extensive camera network mapping the movements of people as they enter, exit and move through schools. The District has walk-through metal detectors and X-ray machines installed in every middle and high school. Fairfax and Montgomery counties have tip lines that students can call to leave information about suspicious activity.
"We needed to put in metal detectors so when students came to school, they would feel they were safe," Mr. Neal said.
The sword Mr. Fiel had on his desk was picked up by the walk-through metal detector that every high school student in the District has to pass through.

Sea change in security
For most school systems, the watershed that led to sweeping changes in security procedures was the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Two boys killed 12 other students and a teacher before shooting themselves.
Alexandria and Prince George's County set up hot lines where students could call with tips about suspicious behavior. The District mounted closed-circuit cameras on outside doors and introduced ID cards for students.
Fairfax County added more police officers to middle schools and introduced a thick manual on crisis management.
"After Columbine, awareness levels have been raised. The idea of following up on rumors, threats, actively investigating incidents … people took idle comments much more seriously," said Russ Tedesco, security chief of Prince George's County schools.
Many schools adopted zero-tolerance policies a no-exception disciplinary approach that has been criticized as too inflexible.
Eighth-grader Benjamin Ratner, who said he took a knife from a suicidal friend and put it in his locker, was suspended by Loudoun County school officials in November for nearly four months under a zero-tolerance weapons policy.
Zero-tolerance policies were first explored during the Reagan administration as a tough anti-drug stance and gained further popularity after school shootings such as Columbine. In 1999, civil rights advocate Jesse Jackson focused national attention on zero tolerance by leading several marches to protest the expulsion of six students in Decatur, Ill., who attacked other students during a football game.
Under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act and the Gun-Free Schools Act, both passed in 1994, schools risk losing federal funds unless they adopt policies regarding possession of illegal drugs on school grounds and impose at least a one-year suspension on those who bring firearms to school. There is no federal requirement mandating disciplinary action for other violations of security policies.
Very few incidents are turned over to the police. Other than in Prince George's County, carrying a handgun or a knife is not even a felony and is not reported to the police. Every year, only a fraction of the students caught committing serious security breaches end up being expelled or being charged by the police.
Ron Peiffer, associate superintendent for Maryland's Department of Education, says when it comes to discipline, school districts put together their own systems.
"It is different from a legal system. … If a child does something and the circumstances are extenuating, the school may not necessarily formalize it," he said.

Suspensions and expulsions
In the 2000-2001 school year, the District which claims to have a zero-tolerance policy expelled only 30 of the 1,955 students who had been suspended.
In Fairfax, the rate of expulsions was nearly 10 percent. Of the 6,576 students suspended in 1998-99, 640 were expelled.
Montgomery County suspended 6,853 students in 2000-2001, of which only 47 fewer than 1 percent were expelled.
Mr. Neal said the District's smaller expulsion numbers may be because the zero-tolerance policy went into effect only last school year. "That policy gives principals more power to discipline students engaged in negative behavior," he said.
In Fairfax County, security chief Fred Ellis said a zero-tolerance policy is a "slippery slope." Instead, security officials need some flexibility in dealing with students who are found in violation, he said.
"We need to have clear, understood rules about behavior, and we need to have appropriate flexibility while dealing with students," Mr. Ellis said.
Expulsion itself is a lengthy procedure, involving several staff members, the school's principal, the county schools superintendent and the school board.
While the details vary from district to district, the procedure is something like this: Every offense is immediately reported to the principal, and the student is given an informal hearing to defend himself. The principal can then recommend suspension of up to 10 days, extended suspension of more than 10 days or expulsion. Extended suspensions and expulsions can be recommended to the school board.
The zero-tolerance policy is strongly backed by teachers, who were victims of more than 1.7 million crimes between 1995 and 1999, according to the National Center of Education Statistics report.
One educator, who has taught in Prince George's County for 35 years, said that in her time she has seen it all: attacks on teachers, student fights, children bad-mouthing instructors. Students know they will most likely get away with it, she said.
She remembered an incident two years ago at Largo High in which a student clubbed a teacher in the head, knocking him unconscious. "That student was suspended, but he is back in school now," she said.
It is such lack of firm action by the school system, she said, that is to blame in a large measure for the absence of student discipline.
"We are apologists, excuse-makers. … We need to start dealing with reality," she said.

How students see it
On a recent morning, a uniformed police officer is talking to a class of high-schoolers at Charles Herbert Flowers High in Springdale about weapons in schools.
The class watches a video of a girl named Linda, who was suspended for bringing a knife into school to defend herself against another girl who had threatened her with a box-cutter. Looking back, Linda says, she would have first gone to the school's security officer.
"A knife, a gun, box-cutters, brass knuckles. … They are all the same thing. If you have them, you are going to be charged with bringing a weapon to school," Cpl. Carlton Sheppard tells the class.
He asks the teen-agers if they would tell someone if they saw another student carrying a weapon. His question is met with an uncertain silence in a class of about 30. Then, two hands go up hesitantly.
In reality, Cpl. Sheppard said, more students might come forward. "Lots of children are afraid of being called a snitch," he said.
A police officer in Prince George's County for more than 15 years, Cpl. Sheppard said he took the job of school resource officer because it appeared "that the best way to prevent crime was to get into the school system where it starts."
"I have had children tell me all sorts of personal things things they never would have told me on the street," he said.
He has been conducting this class at Charles Herbert Flowers for more than a year now, and the students know when to go to him. In class, they ask questions based on personal experience, he says.
"When is it self-defense?" asks one girl.
"What should you do if someone hits you from behind and then runs?" a boy wants to know.
Convincing children to go to an adult is not easy. Dominique Bigesby, a student of Spingarn High School in Northeast, remembers seeing a boy with a knife at school once.
"He said he brought it because another boy was threatening to jump him, so I guess it was all right," said Dominique, 15.

Preventing violence
The solution above and beyond tightening security measures is more guidance and counseling, school officials say.
They stress the importance of interactive sessions between students and security officers and counseling measures for students as an important prevention tool.
"Schools are part of the community and reflect what's going on there … the concerns, the anxiety. … All these issues come into the school building," Mr. Ellis said.
Some parents say they would like to see more counseling for students who commit violent acts.
"It is shocking that children can be so angry that they can hurt somebody," said Sandy D'Orazio, a parent activist who has spoken out about security and who has a son at Frederick Douglass High. "There are so many students who are full of anger and don't know how to control it."
One father, whose 16-year-old son was robbed in Bladensburg High at gunpoint, said he was so afraid for his children that he decided to take them out of the Prince George's school system and move to North Carolina.
The boy who robbed his son, he said, was living on the same street as his family in Cheverly.
"They ride the same bus together," said the father, who asked not to be identified. "I can understand a bully in school, but a handgun is something else."
Mr. Neal said adding social workers and psychologists is vital to preventing acts of violence. Each school in the district has at least one counselor on staff to provide support services for students and parents and to help solve behavioral and psychological problems.
"I would be willing to say that if they had a social worker and a psychologist in Columbine, the problem there would not have occurred," Mr. Neal said.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide