The principal of East Baltimore's beleaguered Hampstead Hill Middle School was removed from her job yesterday, a day after school officials told parents to keep their sixth-grade boys at home to cool tensions lingering from a gang fight Thursday.
Dr. Walter G. Amprey, the school superintendent, relieved Principal Margaret C. Wicks of her duties and placed Assistant Principal Kevin Harahan in charge. Mrs. Wicks, a former prison educator, was hired in August to turn around the troubled school, which made headlines last spring when a man was beaten in Patterson Park by a Hampstead student and two other youths.
Mrs. Wicks could not be reached for comment last night.
Dr. Amprey's decision to remove Mrs. Wicks wasn't based solely on Thursday's fight at the school and the ensuing confusion over whether all of Hampstead Hill's 179 sixth-grade boys had in fact been suspended, said Jacquelyn Hardy, the school
In an effort to cool tensions, an assistant principal sent a letter home to the parents of sixth-grade boys requesting that their children be kept home yesterday -- a decision Mr. Amprey decried. Of the 179 sixth-grade boys, 87 -- about 48 percent -- were absent yesterday. The school's average daily attendance is 76 percent, Willie J. Foster, the school system's director of middle schools, said.
"There have been recurring problems at the school for the past few months. It was hoped with this new principal some of the problems would be resolved and the community and the school would be working more closely together," Ms. Hardy said. "This has not happened, unfortunately."
Some community leaders supported the decision.
"The community knew there were a lot of problems at the school and there continued to be problems," said Karen Weiss, a member of a task force aimed at bringing the school
and community together to address its mutual concerns. "We brought them to the attention of the school system and the school system responded by doing this. . . . We do appreciate the school system's responsiveness to our concerns."
Others felt Mrs. Wicks hadn't been given enough time for the nearly impossible task of turning around a school that has had a difficult relationship with its neighbors.
Kate Finston, a member of the task force who supported Mrs. Wicks, said she found it "disconcerting" that Mrs. Wicks was given only three months to change a school that has been in difficulty for 10 years.
"I don't think that's giving someone the benefit of the doubt, especially when she came in so late before school opened," she said. "It would be difficult for anyone to change over a school like that."
Mrs. Foster said Mrs. Wicks was in her first year as a middle school principal in a school that had special needs. Her removal was "in the best interest of the school and the children," she said.
"The repertoire of skills and strategies that she needed, she did not have," Mrs. Foster said of Mrs. Wicks. "It really was a mismatch in terms of the school and the skills she brings to the job."
Mrs. Foster gave the following account of Thursday's fight and the letter that subsequently went home to parents: At about 9:30 Thursday morning, two boys got into a scuffle in which one youngster brandished a knife. The student with the knife was suspended from school and sent home. Within an hour, the rest of the school's sixth-graders were in the cafeteria eating lunch. The lunch table conversation for many was the fight that had occurred earlier.
Students started to take sides, and as a group of about 30 to 40 children headed back to class, a fight broke out in a stairwell and spilled out into a hallway. While some of the girls watched, boys wrestled on the floor or pushed, shoved and punched each other. Several teachers arrived to break up the group.
The children were calmed down and returned to their classrooms. But teachers were concerned over the large number of children involved. They wanted to get in touch with parents and have a meeting, Mrs. Foster said. So the letter was drafted and signed by Assistant Principal Audrey Harris, who oversees sixth-grade education at Hampstead.
When sixth-grade boys left Hampstead Thursday afternoon, they carried home a letter that told parents of a "gang fight" among sixth-grade boys in which students were either participants or "in danger of being seriously hurt." The letter asked parents to attend a Monday meeting, and it ended with this request:
"As a first step to solving this problem, your child is asked to stay home Friday, Dec. 6, until Monday morning's meeting. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated."
Although Mrs. Wicks knew a letter was being sent home with students, it was unclear yesterday whether she had actually read it and knew the children had been advised to stay home, Mrs. Foster said.
"The teachers were upset and frustrated that so many youngsters would be involved in this activity. Someone said, 'Let's do a letter to the parents.' It was very well-intentioned. The mistake was not allowing the students to return to school Friday," Mrs. Foster said.
"To remove students from school is really considered a disciplinary removal," an action that carries its own set of procedures, Mrs. Foster said. "That was really where the error was."
Mrs. Harris, the author of the letter who is serving her first year as an assistant principal and is new to Hampstead Hill, has not been disciplined. But Mrs. Foster said, "She has been given better directions [as to what to do] when there is a problem of that sort."