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SCHOOLS ARE A SAFE HAVEN FROM STREETS SECURITY IS AGGRESSIVE, BUT STUDENT BEHAVIOR IS STILL WORSENING

Lloyd Elm stood at his office window in his elementary school on West Delavan Avenue and pointed out the two houses across the street where drugs are sold. Then he pointed out the nearby flat where a convicted pedophile lives.

The danger, he said, is out there on the streets.

"It's safe here," said Elm, principal of School 19, the Native American Magnet School, "not just for kids, but for faculty members."

Indeed, while many of the city's streets are turning mean, its schools remain safe.

"School is the safest place to be; the streets are a mess," said Darlene Carr, a mother of two city school children and president of the Parent-Teacher-Community Organization at Futures Academy, in the Fruit Belt on the East Side.

The safety of children in schools is a growing concern among parents. Violence in many neighborhoods where schools are located triggers much of the parents' alarm. Media portrayals of urban schools as violent places fuel those worries.

City schools are not trouble-free by any means. Just last fall, for example, two outsiders entered Emerson High School and, when confronted by two faculty members, pulled a pistol on one teacher. Although the weapon turned out to be a toy gun, that was little consolation to the teacher at the time.

And in 1992, a security officer was shot in the leg breaking up a fight at South Park High School.

These incidents notwithstanding, the image of schools as violent places belies the reality.

For example, school officials conducted unannounced searches of some 20,000 lockers in 10 city high schools over the past two school years -- and not a single handgun was found. And not a single serious incident was reported during the 466 interscholastic athletic events involving city teams last year.

A comparison of Buffalo with other big-city school districts further confirms that schools here are secure. A report issued last fall by the Council of Great City Schools, which canvassed 47 urban school districts, showed:

Incidents involving weapons are much less frequent in Buffalo schools -- 1.3 per 1,000 students vs. a national average of 3.5.

Incidents involving alcohol or drugs also are much less common in Buffalo schools -- 0.5 per 1,000 students vs. a national average of 1.9.

Student suspensions for misbehavior also are less common in Buffalo. The rate here is 43 per 1,000 students, compared with 131 nationally.

School safety and security also were rated satisfactory in a Buffalo News survey that 116 principals, teachers and parent leaders answered. On a scale of 1 for poor to 5 for excellent, the survey respondents rated school safety 3.2.

Margaret Brunner, whose son attends sixth grade at North Park Middle Academy, takes comfort from the school's security system and vigilant staff.

"I don't worry about my child's safety at all," she said.

Andrea Dinkins, president of the Student Council last year at Kensington High School, said several improvements are needed at the school, starting with a paint job and more technology. But security isn't one of them.

"I feel very safe here," she said.

William Jackson, chief of security for Buffalo schools, said schools are safe and getting safer.

"Once you get into the buildings, our schools are very safe, probably as safe as we can make them right now," Jackson said. "I think we're in better shape than we were four years ago."

The improvement stems from a more aggressive approach.

"Security must be aggressive," Jackson said. "If you wait for the problems in the streets to show up in the schools, it's too late."

The district is especially tough regarding weapons and drugs. Get caught with a weapon, and you're suspended. Get caught with an illegal weapon, and you're arrested. Possession of drugs is also an automatic arrest.

"We have zero tolerance," Jackson said.

Locker searches are a deterrent.

"Once the word got out we were doing them, the contraband went down," he said.

Much of what school authorities do confiscate, such as Mace and stun guns, are carried by girls who use it to protect themselves going to and coming from school, Jackson said.

"People are carrying stuff for protection rather than assault," Jackson said.

The district has taken several steps that help make a difference.

Four city police officers work with school security and attendance personnel.

Patrol cars with security officers respond to emergency calls from schools.

A drugs and weapons hot line draws a dozen calls a week.

Additionally, the district, in conjunction with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, has taken several steps to reduce the number of incidents on Metro Bus and Metro Rail, which 13,000 students ride every day. Hidden cameras are installed on troubled routes to identify troublemakers; security personnel periodically check trains to determine whether students are using their passes properly; and a Metro patrol officer works directly with school security personnel.

While schools remain safe, principals and teachers report more student misbehavior.

Student conduct varies from school to school, but principals and teachers responding to The News survey characterized student behavior as mediocre and getting worse.

Fifty-five percent rated student behavior as only fair; another 15 percent rated it poor. By contrast, only 29 percent ranked it good or excellent.

Moreover, 71 percent of principals and teachers said student behavior has become worse in the past 10 years.

"There has to be something done with the discipline," said Susan Mango, a fourth-grade teacher at Campus East. "We spend so much time dealing with the children who are out of control that we waste time that is taken from our teaching time."

Even though student suspensions for misbehavior are less common in Buffalo, the number handed down through the superintendent's office has doubled in the past five years.

Edward Lazzaro, who oversees the process as director of pupil personnel services, sees disturbing trends.

Fighting among students is becoming more frequent and vicious, he said, and younger students are getting into trouble.

"There is more disregard for authority figures at an early age and some bizarre behaviors," Lazzaro said. "There seems to be a growing number every year."

Nevertheless, Lazzaro agreed that city schools are faring better than most of their counterparts.

"We're better off than most urban areas, but things are getting worse," he said.

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