The police cruiser sat conspicuously at the entrance of Annapolis High School's parking lot, its message clear: This school will not tolerate any more violence. Those who cannot comply, turn around now.
Serving as a warning to any would-be troublemakers, the county officer kept watch as more than 500 parents, teachers and students filed past Thursday night on their way to a community meeting about escalating school violence.
As the two-hour meeting began, Nancy Jones, president of the school's Parent, Teacher, Student Organization, said parents and studentshad grown fearful. Some students wanted to go to other schools. Someparents were looking for alternatives. A few teachers, she said, "are having nightmares, fearful of what might happen."
"I feel threatened. I am fearful for my children to the point that I've called the school to make sure they're safe," she said. "I'm thankful every day when they cross my threshold at the end of the day."
Parents fear that recent brawls, primarily between rival factions from two public housing projects, are indicative of deep-seated community problems that will only get worse if immediate and decisive action is not taken.
"We must not study this. We must act," said Jones.
Annapolis High Principal Laura Webb, part of an eight-member panel assembled forthe meeting, said the school would not tolerate more violence. Everyeffort would be made to run an orderly school and create a "positiveschool climate."
But many parents questioned how that would be accomplished. They said they didn't understand what was causing the recent outbreak of violence, and without a clear understanding of the problem, how could it be resolved?
"What's going on in these two housing projects?" asked Carol McCrone, her voice trembling. "We're skirting the issue here."
Harold Green, executive director of the Annapolis Housing Authority, said violence among students can only be stopped by attacking the problem, a process needing commitments from parents, educators and community leaders.
"Let's try not to deal withthe symptoms. Let's address the problems," he said.
Annapolis Alderman Carl Snowden agreed. Simply suspending and expelling students who get into fights, without developing a long-term strategy for dealing with the underlying problem, will serve only as a temporary fix, he said.
The "underlying" problem referred to appears to be the anger and frustration of a small group of students, who live primarily in Newtowne20 and Eastport Terrace, two Annapolis housing projects. Although most of the fighting has been among residents of these neighborhoods, students living elsewhere have also been involved, numerous people pointed out.
On March 10, a fight broke out before classes between two students, one from Newtowne20, the other from Eastport Terrace. Five more students jumped into the fray. When the dust settled,two students were expelled -- charged on juvenile citations with disturbing school activities -- and five more suspended.
On March 13,several anonymous callers reported there would be a shoot-out in theschool. Police with weapon-sniffing dogs turned up only three test tubes left in a locker. The dogs, trained to sniff out gunpowder residue, had detected traces of acid in the tubes.
That weekend, another fight broke out at the Annapolis Mall, this time between two groupsof girls from the rival neighborhoods. On Monday, one of the girls spoke to school officials about the fight and possible retaliation. She asked for protection.
The school did its best to protect her during the day, Webb said, only to have her "jumped and attacked as she got off the school bus" that afternoon.
The next day, the girl, fearing for her life, brought a knife to school. Her weapon was discovered and she was expelled, the principal said.
Then, on March 30, the breaking point came. Another brawl, this time involving 15 students, broke out at 11:15 a.m. in the school's main lobby. Several peoplewere injured, including a student standing nearby, Webb and John Jones, a student advocate at the school, who tried to break up the fracas.
Fifteen students have been suspended and charged on juvenile citations with disorderly conduct. Webb said a decision will be made tomorrow as to whether some or all will be expelled.
Parents at the Thursday night meeting wanted to know why the youths were so angry and what was causing them to lash out.
"We still don't know what theproblems are," said Michael Ragland, who has two children at the school. "I think we need more meetings."
Most of the panelists said reasons for the fights are complicated and may not make sense on the surface.
Green ventured that students he spoke to, who live in the two neighborhoods, thought there was a double standard at Annapolis High. Black students perceived they were disciplined more severely than whites for the same infractions, he said.
Immediately, parents scattered throughout the auditorium shouted back that the explanation made no sense. Why, they asked, would blacks fight other blacks if they felt they were being treated unfairly by whites?
After the meeting, Green said some students feel so disenfranchised that their hostility erupts in inexplicable ways. He added that he did not think there was a double standard at Annapolis High, but the students' perception that there is one should be discussed.
On the tight agenda setup for the evening, only five minutes were left at the end to discuss possible solutions. With minutes to go, parents shouted out ideas -- "eliminate double standards," "start multi-racial classes," "bring in motivating speakers," "put God back in the schools."
After the meeting, Jones said one of the most positive outcomes was seeing the number of people concerned enough to want to work on the problem.
"We (initially) expected 30 people. . . . But I guess we've been overcome by events," she said.