By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008
Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee told the D.C. Council yesterday that the District needs to completely rethink its approach to preventing school violence, with a better trained security force but also by teaching students to manage conflicts before they spiral out of control.
Rhee spoke to the council a day after fights among rival groups at Anacostia High School left five students injured, including three with stab wounds. Flooding school corridors with more police or private security guards is not the answer, she said. Students feel less safe in schools filled with guards, she said, and dollars are better invested in teaching peer mediation and conflict management through anti-violence groups such as Peaceoholics.
"We have to think about a different model for deploying our resources," Rhee said, adding that she and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier are discussing possible changes.
A number of violent incidents this fall, including one yesterday, have raised anew concerns about school safety and discipline. Police said a teacher at Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington was assaulted. Police spokeswoman Traci Hughes said that an arrest is expected soon but that she had no other details.
Three teachers at Hart Middle School have been assaulted by students this term. Last week, a teenager at Ballou High School was maced and stabbed. This month, 19 Dunbar High School girls were accused of fighting and arrested, police said.
There was a large police presence outside Anacostia High School yesterday, with some officers standing outside the front doors and others patrolling alleys and forcing those hanging out there to move on. After school, several students were involved in a brief altercation, but it was unclear whether that was related to the stabbing. Rhee said the sensitivity on metal detectors has been heightened to prevent students from bringing more weapons into the school.
Rhee's draft five-year "action plan," the subject of her three-hour appearance before the council, proposes major changes in discipline policies, including expanding alternative schools for disruptive students and a possibly ending out-of-school suspensions, which officials say do little to deter misconduct.
Rhee's blueprint also outlines strategies for raising student achievement and the quality of classroom instruction. It promises a more diverse group of specialty themed schools and a more sophisticated use of testing data and other information to identify and correct students' academic weaknesses.
The document, which builds on a 2006 master plan completed during the tenure of Rhee's predecessor, Clifford B. Janey, was generally well received by the council.
"Overall, I found the plan to be inclusive and forthright," said D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D).
Although police say school-based violence is down compared with the same period last year, council members raised questions about the effectiveness of school security.
"Parents across the city are disturbed. . . . This is scary to us," member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said.
D.C. State Board of Education member William Lockridge, who represents wards 7 and 8, said the Anacostia situation was triggered by tensions about the enrollment of students from Eastern High School, which is being reorganized under the No Child Left Behind law, and M.M. Washington Career High School, which was closed because of low enrollment.
"I think it was a bad idea from the beginning," Lockridge said. "The community forewarned the administration that this was going to happen, and it's happened. They're not listening."
Rhee said the transfers played no role in the disorder.
Responsibility for security at D.C. schools is shared by "school resource officers" provided by police and a private security firm, Hawk One. Parents and teachers have complained frequently about the ineffectiveness of some guards, saying they fraternize with students and do little to enforce order. School officials said that although they have no immediate plans to replace Hawk One, training for the guards will be upgraded.
Rhee and Washington Teachers Union President George Parker answered council members' questions on the status of contract talks. Both reported little progress and raised the possibility that the two sides could soon declare an impasse, which would place the dispute in the hands of mediators.
Rhee, Parker and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten met Wednesday to discuss the negotiations, but none would elaborate on the conversation. Weingarten and Parker called it "candid."
Staff writers Robert E. Pierre and Timothy Wilson contributed to this report.