Facing angry complaints from residents about unruly and violent students from Hampstead Hill Middle School, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced yesterday that the troubled school's principal would be transferred.
The mayor also told nearly 200 people gathered at St. Elizabeth's Roman Catholic Church that his administration would investigate the possibility of rezoning the school so that more of its students come from the immediate neighborhood.
"One of the big problems is that the children attending the school are not from the neighborhood and thus they have to cross over this neighborhood to get home," Mr. Schmoke said. "And if they are doing something bad, the residents can't come out and say: 'I'm going to tell your mother or your grandmother.'"
Before residents from the predominantly white neighborhood were given a chance to express their views about the predominantly black middle school, Mayor Schmoke added, "It's important that we be frank about what's going on. Race isn't the overwhelming predominant issue. It's discipline. It's control.
"I'm sure we'd be having this same meeting if we had a majority of white kids behaving the same way."
During the meeting, residents eagerly stepped to the microphone to vent frustrations they've coped with for years over students from Hampstead Hill who they say roam their neighborhood, vandalizing property, mugging younger children and threatening adults. They complained about the school's deteriorating physical condition and said that they could never get assistance from the principal, Preston Roney, who has been in charge for 10 years.
They also said that the police do not respond to calls for help or vigilantly patrol their streets.
"I called the police and asked them to come by my house a little after 3 p.m. because there were some kids who kept coming through the alley breaking bottles," said Joseph F. Kopeck, who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years. "They told me: 'Sorry, sir, we're changing shifts at that time, and there's nothing I can do about it.' "
It took the beating of Expedito "Pedro" Lugo to finally get relief, the residents said in anger. Mr. Lugo, who lived in the 400 block of North Kenwood Avenue, was beaten last Friday with a baseball bat by three youths. He remains in critical condition at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Two youths have been charged as adults with attempted murder; one of them is a student at Hampstead Hill. A third youth, who is 13, has been charged as a juvenile with attempted murder.
Since the attack, Mayor Schmoke has visited Hampstead Middle School and met several times with school officials to find ways to ease tensions. He immediately ordered the school to stagger the dismissal of students and, starting Tuesday, more MTA buses will be assigned to the school to transport students home.
Mayor Schmoke said a new principal would be appointed. Officials said the decision to transfer Mr. Roney had been discussed long before the attack on Mr. Lugo because the school consistently failed to meet certain standards.
Mr. Roney, who will remain at the school until the school year ends June 12, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Hampstead Hill Middle School is in the 100 block of South Ellwood Avenue, a few blocks east of Patterson Park. Most of its 1,200 students come from impoverished neighborhoods more than two miles to the northwest. There is no parent-teacher organization, and the school has very few special programs to build self-esteem and defuse negative peer pressure.
Only 150 students live in nearby neighborhoods. Residents of those neighborhoods are predominantly working-class families who send their children to private schools or find ways to send them to Southeast or Canton middle schools.
Yesterday, Mayor Schmoke said he is going to organize a committee of residents, parents and school officials to discuss qualifications for the new principal and strategies for maintaining control.
It doesn't need a very complex solution, according to 14-year-old Tanisha McFadden, an eighth-grader at Hampstead Hill.
"If they were nicer to us, maybe some of the kids wouldn't be so bad," she says. "Sometimes I'll say 'hello' to people, and they just stare at me like I'm not good enough. That makes some kids mad."
She and several other friends said they were horrified at the sight of Mr. Lugo lying bloodied on the street.
"I saw him, and there was this lady near him crying," she said. "I started crying too because I thought he was going to die, and he didn't even do anything to the boys that beat him."
The students are as disgusted with the school as the neighborhood.
"It's terrible in there," said Tarajee Carber, 13. "The bathrooms are gross. The paint's peeling, the ceiling leaks and, worst of all, there's rats."
"It looks worse than the City Jail," said Bernice Warren, a resident who has three children approaching middle-school age.
Looking at Mayor Schmoke, she said: "Do you want to send your kids to a school like that? No, so some people send them to private schools. . . . I can't afford it, and I'll move out of this city if I have to, but I'm not sending my children to [Hampstead Hill]."
Angela Garcia, a science teacher who retired from Hampstead Hill last December after working there 26 years, readily acknowledges that the kids were loud and boisterous.
"They could get out of control," she said. "You had to have a strong hand.
"I feel their parents have dropped the ball. They're not training jTC [their children] to respect themselves or others," she added. "Most times, these children are raising themselves."
But the students never seemed vicious, and Mrs. Garcia has trouble believing the neighborhood has anything to fear from them.
"I think maybe [the residents] just look at color and are frightened," she said.