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Kids want to bid farewell to arms While Buffalo students generally feel safe at school, escalating violence has led some to support metal detectors to erase the threat of guns and knives

A student at Buffalo's Riverside Institute of Technology fought with two security officers and the principal, sparking a larger brawl that drew in other students.

An 11-year-old pupil brought a handgun and bullets to school at Campus West.

And at East High School, a teacher's assistant suffered head injuries trying to break up an attack by three boys on a classmate.

All three incidents took place last month, again focusing attention on security in the Buffalo Public Schools.

In order to get a student perspective, The Buffalo News interviewed 12 Buffalo middle and high school students in an East Side church, an after-school program in the city's Seneca-Babcock section and a West Side program that introduces students to military discipline.

The students described schools where guns are rare but knives are far more common. And, they said, there are other threatening things that many classmates bring to school with them: anger, frustration and hostility.

The result is fights over boyfriends and girlfriends, over gang rivalries or -- perhaps most troubling -- over practically nothing at all.

"Somebody will bump into somebody or give somebody a dirty look, and they just think fighting solves everything," said Tabatha Coronado, a sophomore at McKinley High School. "There was a fight in my school over a cookie."
Friday is often the most volatile day, as students gear up for the weekend. Hallways, cafeterias and lavatories are where trouble most often breaks out.

"When I'm in class I'm safe because a teacher's there," said Travis Fulgham, a sophomore at Riverside. "In a bathroom, you've got to watch your back."

Yet most of the students said they feel safer -- or at least as safe -- in their schools than they do in their communities. And they give teachers, principals and security guards high marks for their efforts to maintain safe school environments.

"They care about the students," said Taisha St. Jean, an eighth-grader at William J. Grabiarz School of Excellence. "If students are acting bad, they try to prevent that."

But despite the feeling of relative safety, most of the students favor a proposal now before the Board of Education to install metal detectors in city high schools as a way to keep weapons out.

"I think they're good," said Angel Cuddihy, a freshman at Math Science Technology Preparatory School at Seneca. "They keep your school safer. If they have metal detectors, there's no way you're hiding a weapon."

Despite repeated requests, Buffalo school officials failed to provide up-to-date statistics on violent incidents and weapons possession in city schools.

But during a four-month period of the 2006-07 school year, 1,064 students were suspended for fighting or assaults. An additional 124 were suspended for initiating physical contact with an adult, and 31 were disciplined for attempting to hurt an adult.

Written reports filed with the Buffalo Teachers Federation and conversations with teachers and union representatives indicate that violence directed at teachers is on the rise, said BTF President Philip Rumore.

"This year seems to be worse than last year for serious injuries to teachers and students," he said. "It seems to come from certain schools. It's not all schools."

City police also said that concerns about school safety are on the rise.

"There's maybe a culture of fear in some of the schools," Police Chief Kevin J. Brinkworth, the district's security expert, recently said at a City Hall meeting.

"Parents are scared," said First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey. "They're worried."

Possible safety measures include permanent metal detectors in every high school and greater use of dogs to sniff out both guns and drugs.

The Police Department already has used dogs a couple of times a week in some schools to check for narcotics, Brinkworth said.

Firm conclusions are difficult to draw from The News interviews with the 12 students, because their opinions and experiences differ widely, depending on what school they attend, where they live and other factors.

But concern was widespread among the students over the recent handgun incident at Campus West.

"I was shocked," said Darwin Hilerio, a sophomore at Emerson School of Hospitality. "I was surprised something like that could happen."

The incident strengthened 13-year-old Taisha St. Jean's determination to be a positive role model for younger pupils and to make sure her 6-year-old brother steers clear of drugs, gangs and weapons.

"You have to start with the little kids," Taisha said. "You have to teach them."

The students interviewed were bright and concerned, and represent the many positives of the Buffalo school system.

Students in True Bethel Baptist Church were attending a gospel music session. Those at Seneca Street United Methodist Church were doing their homework and working on computers. And in the basement of a West Side church, students in a Corps of Cadets program sat together at a table studying.

But at the same time, the students recognize that violence -- or the potential for it -- is pervasive.

"It's not exaggerated," Tabatha Coronado said. "It's all real, and it's all happening."

The students, from three distinct city neighborhoods, agreed the problems that threaten many youths on the streets -- gangs, weapons, drugs and violence -- have filtered into city schools.

"More and more kids are getting involved in gang violence," said Darwin Hilerio. "That's what causes more and more problems."

Experience and perceptions differ widely.

Some students say they have never seen a knife at school.

But several others estimated that as many as 30 percent of students carry knives or similar weapons to some of the city's tougher high schools.

Many of those armed students, they said, feel they might have to defend themselves either in school or before and after class. Others have malicious intent, and some are showing off.

"People talk about [having knives]," said Heather Milew-ski, a senior at South Park High School. "Sometimes they take it out and show people."

The structure of schools makes them safer than dangerous city neighborhoods and at least as safe as the better parts of town, students said.

That's because adults are present, rules are in place, and security officers are stationed at high schools to avert or break up trouble.

"In school, at least the fights are going to stop," said Nita Banks, a junior at McKinley High School. "In the neighborhood, they keep going."

Hutchinson-Central Technical High School freshman Robert Zwetsch said he has no security concerns.

"The biggest trouble there is about six of us that run down stairs to lunch," he said.

Students learn ways to stay safe by navigating environments that can be volatile and unpredictable.

"I'm not going to say it's terrible, but a lot happens there," said Dameyn Smith, an East High School junior. At the same time, he said: "I feel safe because I'm cool with everybody at school. I don't have trouble with anybody."

Most of the 12 students said they favor the installation of metal detectors at schools.

"I wouldn't mind because I don't carry [weapons]," said Anecia Daniels, a freshman at Middle Early College High School.

Several others said students would still find ways to bring weapons to school or would hide them outside and retrieve them after class.

And Travis Fulgham said metal detectors wouldn't deter what remains the most common form of school violence.

"Boys still have their fists," he said. "Fights aren't going to stop."


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