'Skinhead' threats frighten Hampden school

December 24, 1990|By Martin C. Evans

The briefcase that Al Harris Jr. carries to work each day is emblazoned with a small red sticker printed in black.

"You are being watched by the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan," it says.

Stickers like these have been showing up with unsettling regularity at the Robert Poole Middle School in Hampden, said Mr. Harris, a teacher at the school. Some of them depict a hooded Klansman holding aloft a hangman's noose. Others use obscene racial epithets. "Race Traders Beware," says another.

"It's affected both the teachers and the students," said Mr. Harris, a black man who carries the sticker to show he will not be intimidated. "As far as the students are concerned, they have to worry every day if they are going to get home safely."

So do some members of the staff. The principal, a black woman who in the past has played down racial tensions at her school, said she did not want to be quoted at all.

Mr. Harris is right, some of the children said. The threat of racial violence by members of a group known as "skinheads" has hung over the Robert Poole school this fall, and indeed has them worried.

"I don't think they've killed anyone yet," said a 10-year-old, white sixth-grader, as he walked toward Falls Road with two black boys when school let out for the Christmas break on Friday. "They've hurt them, though."

"They beat up a kid named John," one of his companions said.

"If they mess with me, I'm going to fight them back," the other said.

"You can't fight them one-on-one," the white child said. "The others will jump in even if the skinhead is winning."

The school, which is located at 1300 W. 36th St. in Hampden, is home to 756 students in grades six through eight. For the most part, the white students walk to school from the immediate neighborhood. The black students are bused in from as far as North Stricker Street.

For years, the staff at Robert Poole has been trying to keep a lid on racial tensions there. Earlier this month, the school gave each child a packet of information on extremist groups as a way of discouraging membership.

Increasingly, however, white children have been drawn into a racial clique since a Nov. 16 incident in which two black pupils were attacked by a pack of white children led by a 21-year-old man, staff members said. A suspect arrested after the incident, 21-year-old Brian Keith "Wiggy" Wigfield, is associated with the Baltimore Area Skin Heads, an extremist group that espouses racial violence.

Over the past several weeks, according to a school official and a community leader, a skinhead organizer, Leo J. Rossiter, has appeared at the school frequently with his child, a student there, urging other children to join. A witness told police that Mr. Rossiter's son pointed out black children for Mr. Wigfield to attack during the Nov. 16th incident, according to a police report.

Until earlier in December, Mr. Rossiter had successfully demanded that he be allowed to eat lunch regularly in the school cafeteria, saying school officials could not keep him out because of the system's open-door policy toward parents.

"He was like a magnet," a member of the Robert Poole staff said. "Children would just gather around him."

Things then escalated. The stickers appeared daily in bathrooms on the second and third floors of the school. Children who once greeted black teachers with youthful admiration became surly.

A white child who taped a message promoting racial harmony for the city's cable television station was the target of insistent harassment by a handful of white children. And the roughly 25 children in the school who are associated with the skinheads stepped up their taunting of black children.

School officials decided to limit Mr. Rossiter's activities after Dec. 4, however, when, according to a letter from principal Mary Silva to Mr. Rossiter, he injected himself into an altercation between some of the children and promised to rally Hampden residents to oust blacks from the school. Since then, Ms. Silva has insisted that Mr. Rossiter make an appointment with her before he can enter the school.

School officials have had reason to be concerned about Mr. Rossiter's presence at the school. In 1989, he pleaded guilty to illegal possession of hand grenades for his part in transporting explosives for Robert L. White, a former KKK Grand Dragon who was convicted in 1981 for conspiring to blow up a synagogue. At the time of his plea, he was second-in-command of the local Klan group.

Mr. Rossiter, 38, was arrested again Dec. 11. Two days earlier outside the home of a Lansdowne family, a group of men wielding a shovel and a pick attacked the father of a youth who had quit a skinhead group. Mr. Rossiter and Mr. Wigfield, who both live in the 3400 block of Keswick Road, were arrested in Hampden and charged with assault with intent to maim.

Neither Mr. Rossiter nor Mr. Wigfield could be reached for comment. Mr. Rossiter has an unpublished telephone number. A number where Mr. Wigfield has been reached before has been disconnected.

On Friday, the racial tensions served as a backdrop to the merriment surrounding the coming Christmas holiday. Mr. Rossiter's son, a diminutive boy who wears army fatigues and black leather boots, flashed a Nazi salute and hurled a racial epithet as he left the school's grounds.

Black and white children, some of whom exchanged gifts among themselves, said they had been reluctant to sign a petition circulated earlier that year calling for racial harmony because they feared retaliation from the skinheads.

One girl, who wore laceless red sneakers and who recently transferred to Robert Poole from Roland Park Middle School, said she thinks the racial disruptions have hindered children at Poole from learning as quickly as they do at Roland Park.

"At Roland Park, we were doing algebra," said the girl. "Here, we're only doing fractions."

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