Racial tension persists at school in Hampden *Skinhead outsiders blamed for trouble at Poole Middle School.

February 14, 1991|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

A white girl at Robert Poole Middle School in Hampden draws swastikas on her hand.

Another white student denies that the Nazis massacred millions of Jews and labels the Holocaust the "Holo-hoax."

In a third incident, a teacher aide finds a fluorescent sticker on his classroom door that says, "You are being watched by the knights of the Ku Klux Klan."

The aide, Albert L. Harris Jr., who is black, slaps the sticker onto his briefcase to show that he is not intimidated.

In the white enclave of Hampden in north Baltimore, the Poole school has long been a lightning rod for racial hostility because of the presence of so many black students. A busing program that dates to the 1970s has given the school a black enrollment of 49 percent.

Staff members at Poole say a small band of white-power advocates in the community has tried to stir up the student body this school year. Moreover, black students have been accosted after school.

The believers in white supremacy include young men belonging to a Skinhead group, and an older man with ties to Maryland's Ku Klux Klan.

In November, a 21-year-old Skinhead leader, Brian "Wiggy" Wigfield, was arrested at the school for allegedly hitting a black and a white student, in what police called an attempt to start a racial fight.

Wigfield last month received probation before judgment on one battery charge. The state dropped the other battery charge and a trespassing charge.

And black students who lingered in Hampden after school have been harassed and even chased by hostile individuals in the area, says Mary Silva, Poole's principal.

Each weekday, a patrol car from the police department's Northern District stands watch on 36th Street near the school in case of trouble. The practice goes back several years.

For a time last fall, Silva and her assistant principals rode the four school buses that ferry black children out of the neighborhood. Silva says it was done to keep the black students on their best behavior and to ward off possible harassment from hostile whites.

Tensions have forced Silva to forbid black youngsters who don't live in the area from remaining in Hampden after school.

"We want our black students to get the bus in front of the building," says Silva. "There's no reason for them to go up on 36th Street."

The precautions are bitter medicine for some black staff members. One is Brian C. Morrison, a social studies and civics teacher, who says black students feel intimidated.

"To me, it's a very real threat," says Morrison. "For the students, it's real -- especially when every day, at the end of the day, they have to be told to hurry up and get on the bus."

Some black students echo this point. "I never visit in Hampden unless I have to," says an eighth-grade boy.

But community leaders downplay the risk to black children and say the Skinhead problem has been blown out of proportion.

"I certainly don't see gangs of white kids waiting for black kids to come along," says the Rev. William J. Yingling, pastor of St. Luke's Lutheran Church, not far from Poole.

Staff members and students say the school itself remains safe but the atmosphere is tinged with racial tension.

Morrison says some white students freely voice racist sentiments. "They begin to feel that it's OK to say, 'I hate black people.' "

He also finds that students seem quick to spot a racial motive in any conflict between a black student and a white student. "Things get blown out of proportion," says Morrison.

Staff members say that visits to the school by white-power advocate Leo Joseph Rossiter, an ally of the Skinheads, aggravated tensions in the building.

Rossiter, a Hampden resident whose son goes to Poole, was identified by federal prosecutors in 1989 as an official with a Maryland faction of the Ku Klux Klan.

He pleaded guilty in federal court that year to possession of a hand grenade and was sentenced to three years' probation and 250 hours of community service.

According to state and city police sources, Rossiter has ties to some Baltimore-area Skinheads who advocate white supremacy.

Rossiter could not be reached for comment. Directory assistance has no telephone listing for him, and he did not respond to repeated messages left in person at his home in the 3400 block of Keswick Road and with a lawyer who has represented him.

Silva and other staff members say Rossiter sometimes ate lunch with his son at the school and used the visits to attempt to recruit white students into the Skinhead movement.

"He's like a magnet," Silva says of the man. "The white students are drawn to him."

More than a dozen students at the school have openly declared their support for the Skinheads, says Silva, and she attributes this to Rossiter's visits.

An incident on Dec. 4 involving Rossiter led to special ground rules restricting his access to the school, says Silva. While accompanying his son to a basement classroom, Rossiter intervened in a fight between a black student and a white student.

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