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Schools Step Up Security Efforts

New Plan Stresses Need for Fairness

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2004; Page SM01

Students will return to classes in St. Mary's County tomorrow with law enforcement officers back in place at the high schools and a renewed interest in safety throughout the district.

Last year a small increase in the number of fights and arrests caused such worry among community members that a group met and crafted a plan -- and it will keep meeting every few months to see how things are going.

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Next month or in October, Superintendent Patricia M. Richardson will tell the Board of Education how the group's suggestions compare with plans for the next several years and how much all this might cost.

The new recommendations come from a task force of 40 or so administrators, teachers, parents, students and sheriff's deputies who talked about statistics, survey results and their concerns. In the end, they reinforced parents' fundamental rule about disciplining children: Be consistent.

For the most part, the group concluded, people were not demanding new programs; they just wanted to be sure that the guidelines in place were applied fairly.

"I'm supportive of training the principals and assistant principals so the rules are enforced equally across the board," said Sheriff David D. Zylak, "so that a student at Great Mills is treated the way a student at Chopticon is treated the way a student at Leonardtown is treated."

Last year there were 2,421 suspensions in St. Mary's public schools, with nearly half of them for disruptive behavior. The next largest category -- attacks, threats and fighting -- led to 578 suspensions.

Over the past decade, the percentage of students suspended has remained fairly steady.

Zylak said he is not worried about gangs in schools, and he said the hallways and grounds overall are safe.

Last year 167 students were arrested, mostly for disruptions. But a few bad fights -- particularly one in which a girl from Great Mills was badly injured -- received a lot of attention, Zylak said.

Last year the school resource officers -- deputies assigned to each of the three high schools -- were reassigned to other posts. This year, they'll be back, and the community seemed to heave a collective sigh of relief.

"We're not at a point where we have to have kids walk through metal detectors to go to school every day," said Cathy Allen, chairman of the school board, "but you can really tell a difference in the atmosphere of the school when the school resource officers are there." The officer's car is parked prominently out front, she said, and the officer works to prevent trouble from starting.

"There's something about that resource officer," Allen said, "that lends itself to a student saying, 'You know, I'm really frustrated,' or 'I'm this or that.' "

The task force suggested the school district might be able to hire retired police officers to work as "safety advocates" in middle schools.

One change many asked for was in the policy on fighting. "If a student is bullying someone, then only the bullier would have the consequences," Kathleen Lyon, director of pupil services, said of the current policy. "If they fight back, it's a fight."

But many parents and students said they would like to have administrators look more closely at the situation, who started what and how each responded. That's not always easy, they acknowledged.

"It all winds around itself like sticky glue, and it's up to the school system to untangle it," said Clare Whitbeck, a candidate for school board, who said she's impressed with the task force's work.

The task force recommended expanding the Alternative Learning Center, increasing the number of counselors, using security cameras and making sure students know the rules.

The group's report calls for more training for grown-ups in ways to calm a problem and how to apply consistent discipline. The group recommended that students talk about respect and ways to deal with anger -- programs for doing so exist in only some of the schools -- and that parents have opportunities to learn and to be more involved with their children's educations.

And the group recommended ways to support staff members in difficult situations. "Just as speeding fines double in a work zone, so could disciplinary consequences double in a classroom run by a substitute teacher," the report suggests.

Lyon, who led the task force with Zylak, said, "They took this very seriously."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company