Caolyn Boston

Prince George’s County Board of Education Vice Chair Carolyn Boston held May 17 a Community T.A.B.L.E. to address concerns residents had with Prince George’s County Public Schools. (Courtesy photo)

Even though the end of the current school year is approaching, three major problems within Prince George’s County Public Schools are expected to stick around, according to school officials. Cyber bullying, drugs, and homelessness are the top concerns plaguing school communities in the county as revealed by a Community T.A.B.L.E. (Transform, Achieve, Build, Learn, Engage) meeting on May 17 at G. James Gholson Middle School. The meetings are being held to address concerns that residents have about the county schools. The meetings are led by Prince George’s County Board of Education Vice Chair Carolyn Boston.

The May meeting brought together the school system’s support staff, and they used the forum to share information about social services and address student behavioral problems. During the meeting Public School Police Officer Shannon Earl said that gangs are an issue in county schools as well as online bullying through social media.

“The biggest problem we’re getting in the school system is cyber bullying,” he said. “There is no magic way to stop it. The best way to stop it is to get rid of all the computers.”

Acknowledging the solution is unrealistic, Earl noted that stiff fines and sentencing are serious consequences students can face for participating in bullying over the internet through sites like Twitter, Instagram, and FaceBook. He called it “the long arm of the law,” emphasizing that it is possible for students to be prosecuted even if the attacks are made off school grounds or from a student’s home. “Weekend threats online lead to school conflict – cyber bullying is school disruption,” he said. “In the state of Maryland, that’s a $2500 fine year and a half in .”

Earl said incarceration is a last resort but he is currently working on 10 cyber bullying cases involving county schools. “You hear that statement ‘schoolhouse to jailhouse’,” he said. “We want to stop that. We’re not here to lock you up. We’re here to help you graduate.”

Substance Abuse Counselor Gretchen Williams said more than 90 percent of alternative school students have drug abuse problems which often start in the seventh grade. Students may be on the honor roll and maintain regular attendance in middle school, then begin smoking marijuana, which develops into more severe drug addictions that spiral out of control by high school, she said.

“For students who have been removed from their neighborhood schools and placed in these schools, we’re dealing with a lot of drug usage,” Williams said. “When their world is out of balance, they find comfort in marijuana usage and pills, alcohol, and anything else they can get their hands on.”

Williams works with students in five of the 16 county alternative schools to provide them with counseling or refer them to a detox center. “I do what I can on my end,” she said. “We do turn some of them around. The problem is, I’m one person. We need more clinically minded individuals, people who are trained to work with these individuals.”

Many of the children referred to Williams are from single-parent households or live with grandparents who express their displeasure with having to raise a grandchild. The Family Preservation Program provides food, behavior management, family counseling, and additional resources for a six to eight-week period to meet the needs of struggling families, with housing as their most pressing need.

“Lately, to be honest, we’re having more families come in due to housing,” Ebony McKinley, a demographic social worker, said. “That’s been a big issue for us right now, making sure we can house our families and children.” Section 8 housing vouchers are offered to program members, and community donations are welcomed to further assist program participants with items such as furniture.

Throughout the school year, Boston has hosted Community T.A.B.L.E. meetings on Common Core State Standards, school concerns, navigating the school system and county government, and at least two meetings on public safety. Less than 15 people attended the meeting on May 17. “We do plan to do this next year,” Boston said. “We thought it would be very helpful to the parents and to the community. Hopefully next year we’ll have better participation.”