Steuart Hill reviews an unwanted lesson Teachers, parents undeterred by shots

October 17, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

Carole Hengen said it is a teacher's worst nightmare: gunmen chasing each other through a schoolyard full of children.

Ms. Hengen lived through that nightmare Tuesday afternoon at Steuart Hill Elementary School in West Baltimore. But yesterday morning, standing a few feet from the street corner where the gunplay took place, she said the terrifying incident had not deterred her from returning to her classroom.

"This is a great place to work," Ms. Hengen said. "I had no hesitation about coming back."

Ms. Hengen had been helping about two dozen children rehearse a skit on the school playground shortly before 2:30 Tuesday afternoon when about six shots rang out in rapid fire from an adjacent street corner.

Moments later, four or five gunmen ran through the schoolyard as she and three other teachers hustled the children to the

safety of a rear school entrance. At least one of the fleeing men tried to force his way into the school but was met by a locked door. He and the other gunmen disappeared down the street.

None of the children -- neither those out on the playground nor about 700 others inside the school at 30 S. Gilmor St. -- was injured.

Yesterday, the police said they were far from making any arrests and had yet to find even shell casings or other physical evidence that might lead them to the gun- men. "We're not going anywhere with it," said police spokesman Dennis S. Hill. "We're hoping that someone will lead us to the person who did it, but that is not happening."

Parents and teachers at the school, which overlooks Union Square just south of West Baltimore Street, said the incident has not changed their mind about Steuart Hill. It is a good place to learn, they said, and they are determined not to let themselves become prisoners inside its walls.

Yesterday, teachers and a counselor did what they could to comfort the children, several of whom had been badly frightened by the gunfire and the panicky rush for the door.

One second-grader, Alisha White, said she was standing with her classmates when she heard gunshots and one of the teachers ordered them to go inside.

"She said, 'All of you run,' " Alisha said. "I thought it was scary and that's when I started crying."

"She said, 'Oh no, start running,' " said Christina Cox, another second-grader. "We were crushing together in the door."

Goldye J. Sanders, principal of the primary school for prekindergarten to second-grade pupils, said an outdoor dedication for new sliding boards, climbing equipment and other equipment installed recently would go on today as scheduled.

And she said she would have teachers talk to the children about the incident as a way of reinforcing concepts concerning public safety and civic responsibility.

"We'll use this as an experience for them to learn from," Ms. Sanders said. "We're going to show them we're not going to live in fear."

The Union Square neighborhood is home to lawyers, accountants, bank vice presidents, architects and other middle-class professionals -- urban pioneers who have purchased and renovated the tall, old brick town houses that line the square.

But theirs is a neighborhood of gentrification surrounded by decay. Open-air drug markets -- made obvious by the dozens of loiterers who gesture furtively at passing cars -- exist in the alleys a few blocks north across West Baltimore Street.

Residents say that it is not uncommon to hear gunshots in the distance, and that drug dealers and prostitutes frequently drift as far south as the schoolyard to ply their wares after dark.

"We've all sat out here and watched it happen too many times," said Dan Pearce, adding that he nonetheless feels safe in his home across from the school on Hollins Street. "I call the police all the time."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who visited Steuart Hill Elementary yesterday to talk with the principal and console the children, said would order additional police patrols near the school, particularly as school lets out.

The city has tried to focus resources on the neighborhood in an effort to build on the efforts of private citizens, an investment the mayor said is worth protecting.

The school has two "Writing to Read" computerized literacy laboratories, which provide instruction for about 225 first-grade students. The playground to be dedicated today was rebuilt with a grant that the city gives to neighborhoods with strong volunteer activity. And parent involvement in the school is high, even though many of the children come from poor families.

"This is a neighborhood we've really been working hard on," said Mr. Schmoke. "We can't let this one incident destroy the spirit that has been built up."

After he left the school, several staff members said the mayor's decision to come to the school had given them a lift. "I think he wanted to reassure us we are not alone," Ms. Sanders said. "I know it made people feel good that someone is behind us."

But one parent who was at the school during the shooting said it has shaken her confidence in school security. She pointed out that the school system allots only two police officers and one supervisor to cover 17 elementary schools in an area stretching west from downtown to the Baltimore County line.

"I do feel my child is unsafe because they don't have any security," said Toloria Spruell, whose 5-year-old son, Theodore, attends the school. "All they have is us parents."

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