Baltimore school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey today replaced the principal of Hampstead Hill Middle School, after reversing the school's decision to send more than 100 students home until Monday because of a fight yesterday.
Saying the students' discipline was inappropriate, Amprey ordered Principal Margaret C. Wicks placed on administrative duty at the system's North Avenue headquarters pending a decision on her future.
Wicks was replaced by Kevin Harahan, who was named acting principal at the East Baltimore school. Harahan is an 18-year veteran of the school system who is in his first year as one of four assistant principals at Hampstead Hill.
Wicks was not at the school or at North Avenue today, according to school officials. She has an unlisted telephone number and could not be contacted at home.
Amprey's action caps several months of concern about Wicks, who took over in August from former principal Preston Roney, who was reassigned.
Wicks, a former head of prisoner education at Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County, was the second principal this year to head the troubled school, which has been plagued by fights and other discipline problems.
Amprey's immediate move was triggered by the decision of an assistant principal yesterday to send all sixth-grade boys home until Monday, after a fight between two students led to a day of disruption throughout the school.
Amprey countermanded the letter and urged students through the news media to return to school today. School officials could not say as of this morning how many returned.
Amprey said today that it was unclear whether the assistant principal acted alone or with Wicks' assent. But whoever made the decision, it was the wrong one, he said.
"I'm not going to dance around that," he said.
But Amprey also stressed that his decision to replace Wicks did not stem from yesterday's incident alone.
Though he admitted that Wicks inherited a difficult situation at the school, the superintendent said the chain of events that led ++ to yesterday's incident raises questions about administrative skill and leadership.
"I think part of the problem . . . is the situation as it has developed over the past year," he said.
Amprey said he met with school staff this morning to discuss the situation -- his second meeting in two weeks with Hampstead Hill staffers.
But Amprey also said that problems at Hampstead Hill are reflective of problems at other middle schools around the city.
"I want to not sensationalize any further what's going on at this school," he said.
Yesterday's incident began when two students, one of whom had a knife, got into a fight. No one was injured, but the incident led to disruption throughout the sixth grade.
As a result, all sixth-grade boys were sent home with a note to their parents referring to a "gang fight . . . that involved all sixth-grade boys" and saying that "your child was either a participant or a student in danger of being seriously hurt."
The letter had asked students to stay home today and come to the school for a meeting with the principal Monday. It was not a formal suspension or disciplinary letter, according to one school official.
Yesterday's disturbance followed by two days a visit to the school by Expedito "Pedro" Lugo, who was nearly beaten to death with a baseball bat by youths in Patterson Park. One of the assailants was said to have been a Hampstead Hill student.
That beating brought to the surface a continuing problem between the students and area residents who complained of rowdy behavior by the children.
City officials responded at that time by cutting the enrollment to 1,000 from 1,200 and by shaking up the administration -- including moving in Wicks.
Wicks, a 22-year-veteran of the Baltimore school system before her job in the prison system, had pledged to forge better links with the community and to improve student and staff morale.
The school faces a number of educational and disciplinary problems. For example, 63.3 percent of the school's students were absent for 20 days or more last year, according to the state's annual "report card" on school performance.
In addition, most of the school's students come from outside the immediate neighborhood, a fact that has in the past increased tensions between students and residents.
Neighborhood residents have continued to voice concern about conditions within the school, according to Ed Rutkowski, president of the Baltimore-Linwood Neighborhood Association.
In an October incident, four girls were taken into custody after a fight that caused no injuries but drew a large crowd in the neighborhood that was dispersed by police.
In his remarks today, the acting principal said he would move quickly to meet with staff and address tensions at the school.
The decision to replace Wicks drew cautious support from Rutkowski.
"It's fair to say that there are a number of people in the community that are disenchanted; there's been pressure to do something," he said.
On the other hand, he said, "I don't know that this is particularly the right answer. She was put into a very difficult situation. She may not have been given all the support that she needed."
Rutkowski said that relations between the community and the school
have improved some since last school year's highly publicized incident, despite some continuing complaints from residents.
"I have no doubt that it's much better than last year as far as the behavior of the kids outside the school," he said.
Rutkowski said he is acquainted with the new acting principal and is impressed by him.
"He's bright-eyed, he's intelligent. I think he's got a good perspective on what the kids were about," said Rutkowski.