Bullying, Brawling and Bringing Weapons

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008

As about 200 students from across Maryland took their seats at a summit to discuss the problem of school violence, the stereo played an instrumental version of a song familiar, questionable and yet somehow appropriate: "Gangsta's Paradise."

Coolio's elegy to gang violence (sample lyric: "You better watch how you talking, and where you walking/Or you and your homies might be lined in chalk") perhaps didn't speak to the experience of the students from rural Garrett County in western Maryland, but the causes and tragic outcomes of school violence haven't changed much since the hit song was released in 1995.

Gossip, rumors, dirty looks exchanged in the hallway. Neighborhood beefs or quarrels over a girlfriend or boyfriend. The temptation to bully somebody defenseless or different. All could kick off a fight back then, and to listen to the students who spoke at the summit last week in Greenbelt, they still do.

A girl from Parkville High School in Baltimore County rattled off a list of the things she sees at her school: "Gang violence. Student-teacher violence. Sexual harassment. Bullying."

Although Maryland's public schools are generally ranked among the best in the nation, state educators were jolted in April by three unrelated incidents. The beating of an art teacher in Baltimore was captured on video and played on national television. Police responding to a gunshot inside Albert Einstein High School in Montgomery County charged five teenagers and an adult in connection with an alleged weapons deal. And a student at Parkdale High School in Riverdale was stabbed to death near campus in what Prince George's police think was a gang-related killing.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who called a summit in June to talk about school violence, gave the students some hard numbers from the past school year: Nearly 1,800 weapons were confiscated. There were 13,000 altercations or fights, some of them attacks on teachers or staff members.

"This needs to stop," Grasmick told the students. "You live in these schools every single day, and when behavior becomes more important than learning, it becomes an inhibition to learning. . . . We are asking you to speak candidly."

They did. School systems from each county and Baltimore City sent eight to 15 students to the gathering Oct. 27, organizers said. Students poured out their troubles and offered suggestions for how to make things better.

"In my school, there's a lot of 'hood fights," said Ashley Wilson, 17, a Suitland High School senior who serves as a peer mediator. "When they come to peer mediation, I relate with them. . . . They see me as a peacemaker."

Melanie Smith-Rhodes, a peer mediation coordinator at Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Prince George's, wondered aloud about particular kinds of clashes. "Do you have a lot of bullying in your school?" she asked Ashley.

"Bullying in between neighborhoods," Ashley said, giving an example of students from District Heights brawling with students from Capitol Heights. She said that the groups were not gangs, but rather neighborhood cliques. She said most disputes of that type originated outside school but were carried to campus.

Rosalind A. Johnson, a Prince George's Board of Education member who represents District 1 and attended the conference, reminded students that violence is not just physical.

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