13 students hurt in surge toward auditorium exits

December 10, 1991|By Roger Twigg

Thirteen students at Baltimore's Herring Run Middle School were injured yesterday when 800 students attending the school's annual fashion show tried to rush from the auditorium at the same time, pushing, shoving and trampling their schoolmates in the ensuing panic.

"It was like an ocean wave," a school police officer, Gerald H. Weyforth, said of the apparently spontaneous and unprovoked rush by the students to the four exits at the back of the auditorium. "The kids were screaming and yelling and falling down all over the place." School officials said only four of the students were hospitalized and the most serious injury appeared to be a possible broken arm. Most of the injuries occured outside the doors of the auditorium, where an annual fashion show put on by students and teachers was breaking up at 3 p.m.

Jacquelyn H. Hardy, a school system spokeswoman, said that the panic began when a large group of students rose together and started running for the four exits in the rear of the auditorium as teachers announced the end of the program. Other students quickly followed -- most of them trying to get out of only two of the narrow exits -- pushing and shoving one another and trampling those who fell to the floor.

Teachers, school administrators and two school police officers assigned to the middle school, in the 5000 block of Sinclair Lane, tried in vain to pull some of the students back.

"It was not the kind of situation that you could prevent," Ms. Hardy said. "It was spontaneous. When they [the teachers] said it was time to go they [the students] got up and ran out." She characterized the incident as "a crowd control problem" and not something malicious.

But the incident left some parents who had witnessed it fumimg about the apparent lack of control.

"It looked like a bunch of maniacs," said Frances P. Spears, who had gone to the school to pick up her 14-year-old son, Damon. "This poor little girl was on the floor and everyone was running right over top of her. It looked like there was a thousand of them."

Mrs. Spears said she had to pull one child out to keep her son from getting hurt.

Annie Fleming, 31, who left in an ambulance with her daughter, Dekisha, 13, was also upset about the incident.

"I want to know why this happened," Mrs. Fleming said. "I send her to school to get an education, not get abused."

School officials contended that they had provided procedures for releasing the students, but that the chaos developed because the students tried to leave together without waiting for instructions from the teachers. They said they even decided not to use the school bells for dismissal so that teachers could release the students from the auditorium by sections.

But, as soon as the students were informed that the fashion show had ended they jumped and ran for the exits, Ms. Hardy said.

One Herring Run student, Kelly Johnson, 11, said that when everyone started pushing and shoving she fell to the floor. "I tried to get up, but I couldn't," she said. Kelly injured her leg in the panic, and was picked up at the school by her older sister, Frankie Johnson.

Another student, Kashina A. Witherspoon, 13, said part of the problem was that school officials released the students from the school auditorium at the same time that other children were being let out.

"Everyone wanted to make sure they got to the school bus in time," Kashina said. "They were running and stomping on each other."

Ms. Hardy said four additional school police officers will be assigned to the school today to "get it operating calmly and orderly." She said that school officials are going to confer today and analyze the situation to see what can be done to prevent similar incidents happening in the future.

They do not expect to discipline any of the children, she added.

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