Student caught carrying a gun Harlem Park girl faces expulsion, weapons charge

September 05, 1992|By Mark Bomster and Roger Twigg | Mark Bomster and Roger Twigg,Staff Writers

The crime wave washing over Baltimore touched one of the city's newly privatized schools yesterday morning with the arrest of a 15-year-old Harlem Park Middle School student for possession of a loaded .25-caliber handgun.

The incident took place just four days into the school year at one of nine city schools involved in an education experiment that has drawn national attention.

But school officials and community leaders say it highlights serious crime problems in the neighborhood and is no reflection on the project undertaken by Education Alternatives Inc.

"We had a problem here today that was handled, and we are moving on," said Nicky Johnson, principal of the 1,500-student school. "This is in no way slowing anything down."

The incident occurred about 9:50 a.m. during a gym class at the school in the 1500 block of Harlem Ave. in West Baltimore.

The girl was showing a pager to fellow students as sort of a "show and tell" when one of them noticed a handgun sticking in her waistband, a school official said.

One of the students reported it to a gym teacher who confronted the young girl in the hallway and chased her into a boys' lavatory where she was apprehended.

A .25-caliber handgun was recovered from a trash can in the lavatory, officials said. No pager was found, however.

Officials said they did not know why the girl might have been carrying a weapon or pager.

A school spokeswoman said the eighth-grade student was taken to the Western District police lockup and charged as a juvenile with possession of a firearm.

The student was immediately suspended from school. Handgun offenses draw an automatic recommendation for expulsion, under school rules.

Last school year, Baltimore schools reported a total of 44 firearms incidents, up from a total of 22 the year before.

Yesterday's incident was a sour conclusion to what had been a generally upbeat opening week at Harlem Park, which just two days ago was visited by U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

The school is part of a unique project dubbed "Tesseract," a term from a children's science fiction novel intended to suggest imaginative new approaches to education.

The program, which is being phased in during the school year, relies on non-traditional teaching strategies, high-tech classroom equipment and small student-teacher ratios to produce higher academic achievements.

The private contractor is in charge of each school's educational strategy as well as maintenance and upkeep.

But the school system's own principals, teachers and security staff remain in place at those schools. For example, Harlem Park this year once again has two school police officers at the school.

EAI officials say they are preparing a security plan for the nine schools participating in the project, to protect both the students and the estimated $3 million in computers and other hardware the company plans to bring in.

Aware that the arrest would drawn widespread attention, the Harlem Park principal moved quickly yesterday to calm the students and reach out to the neighborhood.

Shortly after the arrest, the principal and school counselors met with about 70 eighth-grade students from the gym class where the incident occurred

"We talked about the fact that having guns in a school is illegal, and the consequences," Mrs. Johnson said. "I asked them to set the example for the underclassmen as they moved through the building."

Mrs. Johnson also made herself available for students who wanted to talk about the incident, and said she would remain after school to talk with parents and others from the community.

"I am not throwing up my hands in alarm, I am not saying Tesseract is not working," she said. "I am still feeling as excited about being here."

Meanwhile, community leaders say the incident simply reinforces the importance of dramatic changes of the type undertaken by EAI.

"The level of violence is so high in this community that a kid with a gun is not that unusual," said the Rev. Norman A. Handy Sr., president of the Harlem Park Neighborhood Council and pastor of Unity United Methodist Church.

But he said that such incidents are likely to be an exception this year, saying that the EAI experiment already has brought a new level of enthusiasm to Harlem Park students.

Dwayne Robinson, president of the Harlem Park Middle School Parent Teachers Association, agrees.

"If the Tesseract program does the things it says it can do, hopefully it will curtail such incidents," he said. Even so, he said, "things aren't going to stop overnight."

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