BALTIMORE – The shootings get the headlines, but when U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley and Gov. Parris Glendening joined parents and teachers at a conference Friday on school violence, the focus was on prevention.
During his keynote address, Riley urged educators to send a strong message to students that violence will not be tolerated despite what they may see in the media.
“As long as this society continues to glorify violence … we will have to confront tragedies like Springfield and Jonesboro,” he said, referring to school shootings this year in Oregon and Arkansas. “Violence is not the solution to any problem that [students] may have.”
Riley attributed much of the problem to the lack of role models for children, saying many grow up “disconnected, almost alone.”
Glendening promised $350,000 to help schools create community service “work crews” to punish disruptive students and announced he will create a toll-free hot line for students to anonymously report guns at school.
The governor challenged businesses to support after-school programs by matching the amount of state dollars earmarked for these projects. He also promised $200,000 to schools attending the conference to help develop anti-violence initiatives.
The two-day conference attracted more than 700 participants Friday, who attended workshops on a range of issues including conflict management, peer mediation and sexual harassment.
Statistics collected in Maryland highlight the breadth of school violence problems.
During the 1996-97 school year, 73 students were expelled from the state’s public schools for bringing guns to schools, according to the Maryland Department of Education.
More than 6,000 students were suspended from school for inciting or participating in a disturbance, and 1,500 were suspended for physically attacking a teacher or administrator.
Nationwide, 20 students were killed with guns in and around schools during the 1997-98 school year, according to the Los Angeles- based National School Safety Center.
“We seem to have a love affair with violence,” Riley said, “and it will take a sea change in our culture to move away from this thinking.”
Gail Garfinkel, a teacher at Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Montgomery County, believes violent behavior is often the result of students feeling alone.
“Students who act out may feel that they’re not cared for or aren’t a part of the system,” she said. “School should be a place where they can vent their feelings in a positive manner.”
To this end, Garfinkel has installed an after-school program at Banneker Middle, where students can participate in intramural sports, arts clubs and chess tournaments – anything to keep them engaged.
Vivian Barnes, a child advocate in Queen Anne’s County, also stressed the importance of “connecting” with students.
“I spend a lot of time counseling students who are at-risk for violence,” she said, “and I tell them that before a fight to use their minds and call me or page me.”
Barnes said she’s implementing a mentoring program at Kent Island High School, where black men will partner with black youth.
Some teachers said they are troubled by the media focus on the notorious examples of Jonesboro and Springfield. They said they’re not representative of what the real problems are in schools.
“There is violence everywhere in our society,” said Ken Haines, a French teacher at Northwestern High School in Prince George’s County. “I find that schools aren’t as unsafe as the press makes them out to be.” Haines said the problems plaguing his hallways are sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation. Put 2,400 students into a small school, he said, and there will be problems. -30-