Baltimore School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey called himself a "guest teacher" as he stood before a classroom of attentive ninth-graders at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School yesterday. But soon it became clear that he was there to learn.
Disturbed by the constant eruption of violence in Baltimore's middle schools that he says has created "a sense of panic," Dr. Amprey went to the Mervo ninth-graders -- themselves recent middle school graduates -- seeking answers.
"I need your thoughts on how to change values so that students will see that it is more important to solve problems in ways other than 'banking' each other," said Dr. Amprey, using the current slang word for beating.
"People need to try to talk to each other instead of fighting," suggested a 14-year-old student named Angela. "We should just turn our backs on people that want to fight."
"That doesn't always work, though," cautioned a classmate, Marcus. "Sometimes people will hit you when your back is turned."
A frightening number of Baltimore students have been attacked by their peers this school year. Last week alone, a teacher was attacked by a group of students he was escorting at Booker T. Washington Middle School and a new student was beaten with a nightstick by a non-student at William H. Lemmel Middle School. Also, one student was hospitalized after a fight at Lombard Middle School and 13 students were hurt in a stampede at Herring Run Middle School.
Reeling from the chaos, Dr. Amprey met with the students at Mervo and, earlier, with principals, parents, business people and community and religious leaders to seek support and suggestions. He got a lot of both.
One of the participants in the earlier meetings, Joseph L. Washington of Associated Black Charities, told the group about a program he is implementing at Edgewood Elementary School in West Baltimore's Walbrook neighborhood, in which a team of fourth- and fifth-graders will be trained to mediate the disputes of their peers.
"All the murders and assaults in this city started with someone disagreeing with someone else," he said. "If we can get these kids now and teach them how to resolve conflict, in later years we may see less murders and violence."
Mary Silver, principal at Robert Poole Middle School in Hampden, said she is taking Mr. Washington's plan -- called peer conflict resolution -- a step further. She will bring in volunteer attorneys and judges to conduct mock trials to resolve student problems.
And at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School, teachers' crises are handled by a "SWAT" team -- not a group of heavily armed police officers, but a group of teachers armed with counseling and motivational techniques. The School-Wide Assistance Team supports teachers as they deal with student conflicts or behavior problems.
"We are supporting students by supporting teachers," said Principal Deborah Wortham. "It is a place they can go to seek advice or vent frustrations and it's all done in complete confidence."
When Dr. Amprey met with students yesterday, they told him that drugs and peer pressure are often the most influential forces in their lives. Some complained of little parental guidance and few positive role models.
"Drugs are drastically in here," said Tavon Cleggett, 14. "We need to get rid of drugs, and we need role models so we can grow up and be role models for our kids."
Parental involvement in schools is dreadfully low. Where the existance of parent-teacher organizations were once taken for granted at schools, they are now rare.
"Jobs don't give you time to participate in school," said Jacqueline Jones, mother of two girls at Pimlico Elementary School. "Then other parents sit home all day and watch the soaps and figure as long as it's not happening to their kids, it's OK."
"I think we're going to have to make it mandatory for parents to work in school," said Jacqueline Gowans-Maultspy. "Some parents won't do anything unless they have to."
She could have easily given up on city schools. Her 14-year-old son, a student at Lemmel Middle School, was attacked last summer. But she attended the meeting today to express her commitment to helping improve the schools.
"His eyes were beaten in. It was very traumatic," she said. "It didn't ruin him. But we have to stop this violence before it ruins people."