A portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stared down from the classroom wall at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in Baltimore.
Standing at the blackboard yesterday, a piece of chalk in his hand, was Baltimore schools chief Walter G. Amprey, preaching a gospel of non-violence and positive thinking.
He had come to Mervo as part of a high-profile campaign to combat worries about school violence, after a citywide rash of beatings and disturbances in recent weeks.
That campaign relies heavily on community involvement and an aggressive, highly visible presence in the schools by the superintendent.
Downstairs, under the watchful eyes of the television cameras, a special work group of principals, ministers and community leaders was meeting to map strategy at a breakfast catered by Mervo students.
But in Barbara Russo's ninth-grade American government class, the superintendent was hammering away at the issue of "values" and the importance of not meeting violence with violence.
Students should do whatever it takes "to make sure . . . that the fighting doesn't take place -- no matter what," said Amprey.
But it's not always so simple, said several students.
They talked about "banking," the street term for a gang attack on a single victim.
Even if you walk away, "most of the time, they hit you when your back is turned," said a ninth-grade boy.
"Sometimes, I just feel like doing something that I will regret later," said a ninth-grade girl, adding that that turning the other cheek hasn't always stopped harassment.
Amprey was unruffled.
"As long as you hold firm to your values not to fight, that's a lot of power," he said, praising the girl for her restraint.
And he said that anti-social behavior often is born of deep insecurity, telling students that they must spearhead a change in values that will make fighting unacceptable.
"Stop all self-criticism," he said. "No self-criticism. Don't beat up on yourselves. Don't find things wrong with yourselves. That's what has to happen in our schools and in our city."
Amprey's appearance drew high marks from the students -- even from some who had some questions about whether his approach is always practical.
"The thing is, if you can't talk about it and resolve it . . . they come at you with physical force," said Moiese Jenkins, a senior who sat in on the class. "You have to defend yourself."
For teacher Barbara Russo, the superintendent's appearance is an important symbolic move, though she said it will take far more to resolve school violence.
"Schools are a reflection of society," she said. "It's difficult to control what goes on in a school when you can't control what's going on in society. Fights begin in the neighborhoods and spill into school."
The level of concern about school violence was brought home most graphically by a parent who addressed the task force meeting at Mervo yesterday.
"My son was attacked on June 6 of last school year -- his eyes were beaten in," said Jacqueline Gowans-Maultsby, whose 14-year-old son attends Lemmel Middle School, site of another beating last week.
"It hasn't ruined him," she said of the attack. "But we have to put a stop to it before it does ruin people, before it makes them retaliate. We have to put a stop to it before it's too late." She said her son had no permanent injuries as a result of the beating.
She noted that Lemmel school has 1,500 students and only one school police officer.
In his remarks to the work group, Amprey acknowledged that school security is a major problem.
"I am concerned about the tremendous level of violence that is taking place, the way people are acting out their depression and anger and sadness," he said.
Amprey pledged to focus first on middle schools, where most of the recent incidents have occurred, starting with a meeting this week with all middle-school principals.
"We've got to get together and right away stop the bleeding," he said.
Members of the task force also heard from several school principals who are trying innovative ways to deal with conflicts between students.
And the event's upbeat theme was echoed by the Rev. Emmett Burns, of Rising Sun Baptist Church, who admonished the media that "you cannot enjoy the luxury of being objective in your reporting."
"We need some victories, we need some symbolic victories," he said. Amprey's school safety plan does not solve the problem, "but it does give us an opportunity to have some symbolic victories."
Among the suggestions to come of yesterday's work group meeting:
* A directory of successful programs around the city involving school security.
* Meetings with teachers and community groups, to be followed up with meetings with students.
* The formation of safe-school committees in each school and "Safe School Days" throughout the school system.
* Efforts to provide positive role models from the community for students.