The Rev. Delores Roberts says she has interviewed about 600 Prince George’s County students about violence in their schools. (Courtesy of Delores Roberts)

Roberts was part of a small audience at a community meeting at Central High held this month to discuss school safety after Marckel Ross, a student, was killed on his way to school. Waving papers, she tried to explain that she had surveyed more than 600 students in the past seven years about violence and other behavioral problems in the schools. She approaches youths at shopping malls, grocery stores and libraries, asking them to participate in her informal survey. What she learned from them alarmed and appalled her. I met with her at Applebee’s in Largo this week to discuss her findings — and solutions.

“What do you mean a sex room at the school?” I asked, reading a list of 36 school incidents dating to 2008.  

“There’s a school where the kids say they have a room that everyone knows is a sex room,” she said. She doesn’t know whether it’s a vacant classroom or an empty storage room. She would not disclose the name of the school because she’s trying to work with county authorities to address these issues privately.

Her list of incidents in schools includes sex in school stairwells, girls getting jumped in their school bathroom or girls being sexually assaulted by other girls at a recreation facility. She says boys have told her they are afraid to shower in the gym because they may get assaulted as part of someone’s gang initiation.

Roberts, a former social worker, is not a registered volunteer with Prince George’s Schools, according to a schools spokesman, who explained that volunteers must undergo background checks and volunteer organizations must submit financial reports to help safeguard students.

“What do you mean sex on the back of a school bus?” I asked, reading incident No. 25 on her list. “Where was the bus driver? Why were they left alone on a bus?”

“You all really don’t have a clue, do you?” she said, glaring from across a table. “The bus driver can’t supervise while driving the bus.”

“Girls have no shame?” I said. “They’re doing this stuff with others watching?”

Nobody’s got any shame anymore, she said, shaking her head. No shame and no sense.

 Why are students so candid with her?

“I would walk up to them and tell them, ‘I’m doing a survey, because I hear you all have all kinds of violence in your school.’ . . . I’ll say, ‘Tell me about your school,’ ” Roberts said.

The information she gathered compelled her to contact school principals and offer a “Stop the Violence: Choice Not Chance” daylong summit in 2010. In March 2009, she testified before the Prince George’s County School Board, telling members that she is an advocate for children who have been intimidated, robbed, stabbed and sexually assaulted.

“I am the voice of the students who told me they are afraid to tell for fear of being beaten or labeled a snitch,” Roberts said she told school officials. She told of students opting for night school to avoid threats of violence during the day.

A county schools spokesman, who had also attended the community meeting this month, said the school system conducts its own formal “climate” survey to gather information and assess students’ concerns. According to the school system’s biennial survey, nearly 65 percent of the students surveyed in 2011 said they feel their schools are safe and orderly. That was up from the 59 percent the year before. About 85 percent of the parents surveyed in 2011 felt the schools were safe. Among teachers, 72.5 percent said last year the schools are safe and orderly, down from 77 percent the year before.

But 35 percent of a student body feeling unsafe at school can’t be good. What’s more unsettling is the gap between parents’ perceptions and their children’s. Close to 85 percent of the parents believe their children are reporting to safe schools.

There’s a disconnect here. Two high school students were killed this year and their deaths should be a wake-up call. Although Amber Stanley was killed in her home, it’s possible that others involved in — or aware of — the conflict that led to her death are on a school campus. Police fought to get back on school campuses a few years ago because they know that’s where they can head off major crimes — by hearing the grumblings of conflict inside schools. Roberts has been listening to students. I hope county officials will listen to what she has learned.

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