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Correction to This Article
This article misstated the location of Montgomery County's Albert Einstein High School. The school is in Kensington, not Gaithersburg.

Bill helps Md. schools, police share more gang information

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By Aaron C. Davis and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Principals, police and prosecutors would share confidential information about Maryland public school students suspected of gang activity under a bill House Speaker Michael E. Busch plans to introduce Tuesday.

The bill, which is raising concerns about student privacy and civil liberties, would be among the most aggressive in the country in the level of coordination between law enforcement and school officials to root out gang activity.

Busch (D) said the bill is aimed at preventing a repeat of the kind of violence between school-age gang members that culminated in May's beating death of a 14-year-old Crofton boy, the son of a Prince George's County sheriff's deputy.

"We have got to break down these barriers," Busch said Monday, noting that in hearings after the Crofton killing he was disturbed to learn that gangs are active in every county in the state and that state privacy laws prevent police and school officials from sharing all the knowledge they have about gangs in classrooms.

"After Crofton, parents came out and wanted to know what happened, where was the lack of communication and do gangs still exist in that school and others. I think it's appropriate for government at this point to step in and say, 'How do we ensure that all those students are going back to schools that are safe?' "

Some principals who said they support the plan in concept said that what might seem like a good idea in Annapolis might be tricky to put into practice. Civil liberties groups and those who work with juveniles said they were also concerned that the bill might distribute too much data about students and that the information could have dramatic and unintended consequences if used incorrectly.

"It's opening up a can of worms," said Terry Hickey, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who works with accused juvenile gang members.

"There are real gang members who don't draw attention to themselves in schools, and there are posers out there -- kids saying they are in gangs, boys trying to pick up girls saying they are a Blood. . . . If you don't have teachers receiving proper intervention training to know who is who, all this is going to do is end up locking up more students."

According to a draft copy of the legislation in circulation Monday, Busch's plan would require courts to share with schools information on children deemed delinquent and those committed to the custody or guardianship of the state's Department of Juvenile Services.

It also would require teachers to report "any suspected gang or gang-like activity" to school administrators and a designated school security officer, who would be required to meet and regularly coordinate anti-gang efforts with prosecutors, police and representatives of the state's Department of Juvenile Services, among others.

The information sharing could trigger intervention efforts with students in school and be forwarded from school to school if students transfer.

The bill would also bar students arrested on charges of rape or sexual offenses from attending the same school or riding the same school bus as the alleged victim.

Many of the details of the broader intervention plans for those perceived to be engaged in or leaning toward gang activity would be hashed out, district by district, in gang-prevention strategies that each county would be required to develop.

Questions about whether and at what point schools might remove suspected gang members from general classroom settings would be worked out in those county plans, which would be formulated before fall 2011 with input from the state and the public, according to the bill.

Cindy Boersma, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, praised the bill for encouraging students, parents, teachers and law enforcement to develop gang policies in each county.

But she expressed concern about a change to existing law that would require courts to report all issues of delinquency to school officials. Courts now have the discretion to report a much more limited range of issues to schools.

"That makes an incredibly vast amount of information that goes to superintendents," said Boersma, with no rules about how the information would be used.

James G. Fernandez, principal of Albert Einstein High School in Gaithersburg, said it could be troublesome for school officials to label students as gang members.

"My experience has been that most kids who are in a gang don't want you to know," he said. Students who openly claim gang affiliation often do so to intimidate others, Fernandez said, and aren't necessarily deeply involved with gangs.

School safety is one of several education issues likely to vex Maryland lawmakers in coming weeks.

On Monday, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) unveiled legislation intended to give the state a chance at winning a chunk of $4 billion in federal education funds that are tied to reforms. Maryland was one of 10 states that did not submit a first-round application for the Race to the Top school reform fund because it was advised that its laws allowed teachers to gain tenure too quickly for the state to be competitive.

O'Malley's legislation would increase from two years to three the time it takes to receive tenure and would increase training for teachers identified as being at risk of not receiving tenure.

Some state lawmakers have already begun to question whether the state should make permanent changes just to receive temporary funds. Maryland is eligible for $150 million to $250 million.

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