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Behavior offenses in Anne Arundel schools reached a 4-year high last year; system continues violence prevention program | #schoolsaftey

School behavior offenses rose sharply during the 2022-23 school year in Anne Arundel County to the highest number since the pandemic, data shows.

In January, the school system reported 2,155 serious offenses in the first semester, a significant increase in the number of such offenses, which include fights, attacks and threats.

By the end of the school year, the number of serious offenses increased to 4,961 — the most recorded since the 2018-19 school year when 4,495 serious offenses were reported.

Offenses involving weapons, including firearms, look-alike guns (e.g., pellet guns), knives and other weapons, have also increased. Since January, the number of reported weapon violations increased from 119 to 265. By comparison, 148 weapon violations were recorded in the entire 2018-19 school year.

Toward the end of the 2019-20 school year, behavior offenses declined as Anne Arundel County Public Schools operated entirely remotely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Data on behavioral offenses for the 2020-21 school year was not included in this table since the school year operated either fully remotely or on hybrid schedules due to persisting health safety concerns. When schools reopened in 2021-22, the school district reported a total of 2,815 serious offenses.

Georgia Noone-Sherrod, executive director of the Anne Arundel Conflict Resolution Center in Annapolis, said she is not surprised by the rise in the number of reported offenses, given the forced isolation of the pandemic.

“Some kids didn’t go to school for two years. You now take those same students and you put them in middle school and you expect them to know how to be able to control their impulses when there was no structured socializing. So, what I think we are seeing right now is the byproduct of the trauma people suffered during COVID,” she said.

As a result of the rise in behavioral offenses, Superintendent of Schools Mark Bedell introduced in January a violence prevention program, #BePresent, which recruits adults to visit schools in their communities to forge positive relationships with students throughout the day.

Shawn Ashworth, one of the leaders of the initiative, said the school system received 59 applications between March and June. Only about 26 of these volunteers completed training before the school year ended. They were placed in 11 schools: MacArthur Middle, Meade High School and Annapolis Middle and High School, Glen Burnie High School, North East Middle, North County High School, Old Mill Middle North, Old Mill High School, Phoenix Academy and South River High School.

With so few volunteers, the program did not have enough time to influence behavioral issues, Ashworth said. Organizers hope the program will have an impact when the school year begins Aug. 28.

“I believe the use of end-of-year discipline data, as it relates to showing an impact of Dr. Bedell’s initiative, BePresent, will not speak to an impact as it relates to the implementation of [the program],” Ashworth said in an email in June. “We only piloted [the program] in eleven schools. Only two schools had about 10-12 volunteers, while others had one to two.”

Training sessions are offered twice a month and run for about two hours. Ashworth said in every element of the training the school system gives volunteers problem-solving scenarios that have occurred in schools to help them prepare.

The training includes in-depth discussions on how volunteers can combat their implicit bias, what it means to keep kids safe, and how the school environment has changed since the volunteers were students. This training requires participating schools to create their own training methods to better integrate their volunteers into the school’s unique community.

“What we are saying to the volunteers that come is that you are not there to break up fights, you’re there to be present. You’re there to build positive relationships with students,” Ashworth said.

Raven Harris, a former assistant principal at MacArthur Middle School, is one of many principals in the pilot program who have made the initiative unique to their school. Harris will be leaving her position at MacArthur to be an assistant principal at Meade Middle School.

Since the pilot program started in March, Harris said volunteers did not get a lot of time to interact with students. But the program did act as a “jump-start” for her administration to get a feel for what the volunteers were hoping to contribute and get from the experience, she added.

Mark Russo, a captain in the Fort Meade Garrison for the U.S. Army, said that despite having less than a month of volunteering, participants had an opportunity to give back to schools across the county. Russo and many others from the Fort Meade Garrison volunteer at MacArthur due to its proximity to Fort Meade.

Russo helped the MacArthur staff run field days for the eighth graders, organizing sports games and playing basketball with the students.

“It was fun. I have a brother who is twelve years younger than I am, so I kind of always grew up mentoring and helping him with school or sports, so I love that atmosphere and hanging out with the kids and seeing the talent they had at the school,” he said.

Sherrod said there are many reasons why schools are seeing a rise in school violence. She said social media and the unregulated exposure to violence on social media are among the reasons that #BePresent is only one piece of a much larger puzzle on how the school system can tackle the rise in behavior offenses.

“In general, there is a certain amount of behavior that young people have because they lack the skills to solve conflicts naturally,” she said. “We do not teach conflict resolution in our schools. It seems rather naive that we would expect young people to not fight or physically put their hands on one another when they consume the opposite diet in their media.”

In January, a video surfaced that showed a student with special needs being bullied. The viral video, taken Jan. 10 at Severna Park High School, shows a student using racial slurs, and epithets and phrases that are demeaning to people with special needs.

In response, Bedell hosted a community forum to address the incident. The student responsible for the bullying no longer attends the school, Severna Park High School Principal Lindsey Abruzzo said in January. Bedell announced the BePresent initiative a week after the community forum.

“Violence is a learned behavior,” Sherrod said. ” I don’t think that there is intent to be malicious when these are posted, but it is a culture to film and post conflict because that is what they see on their social media.”

Sherrod said #BePresent is a good start to address the root of the problem, but the initiative must continue out in the community to help create support systems such as before- and after-school programs and mental health services that can complement what the school system is doing.

“We have to invest in our youth, and that goes beyond the schools,” she said. “Community organizations have to be willing to collaboratively engage with schools.”

For more information on how to become a BePresent volunteer, or volunteer in the school system, visit aacps.org/domain/1841

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