Shooting teaches terrible lesson to young pupils

February 03, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

At Reisterstown Road and Shirley Avenue yesterday morning, the morning after the kindergarten teacher Julie Lombardi was shot in the face, there were chalky circles drawn by police around the places where bullet shells landed, and there was shattered glass in the street, and you could follow the path of blood all the way from the shooting to the front door of Malcolm X Elementary School.

"She was crying that she wanted to be taken into the school," a man who works nearby was explaining.

"Yeah, the school," said another man. "It was like she'd be safe inside the school."

Schools are places we used to consider sanctuaries, but no longer. In the city of Baltimore, there are no sanctuaries now. Yesterday there was a crisis team in a classroom at Malcolm X Elementary, trying to explain to Julie Lombardi's kindergarten kids that an accident had happened, that their teacher wouldn't be coming to school for a while.

These kids live in the surrounding neighborhood, on all the little streets off lower Reisterstown Road and lower Park Heights Avenue, neighborhoods that once symbolized the arrival of families to golden suburbia, but are now considered drug-ridden, now considered dangerous, now considered a place where they shoot kindergarten teachers.

Yesterday, people who work in the school said Julie Lombardi tried to protect her kids from such a world. They said she was kind and devoted. Thus, school was a sanctuary for these children, but now it isn't anymore. Their first line of defense for six hours a day has now been taken away.

In a hallway outside the principal's office yesterday was Dr. Carl Robinson, a psychologist for the city school system, one of a crisis team brought in to talk to Lombardi's kids about the thing that happened the afternoon before: about the gunman coming up to Lombardi at a red light a half-block from school, and firing at least five shots at her when she refused to give him her car, and one of the bullets entering her left cheek and exiting the right.

By yesterday morning, most of the kids had already heard the news. They saw it on the television Tuesday night, or their parents read about it in the newspaper in the morning, and maybe they looked down and saw the blood on the sidewalk outside the school door.

"One of the children," Robinson was saying now, "was afraid she had died. But a teacher came in and said, no, she'd been to the hospital, and Ms. Lombardi was alive and she would be OK. There was a lot of sadness in the room. We told them it was OK to cry. Some of them might feel guilty they couldn't help her. It's likely some of the kids will feel vulnerable now, fearful, out of control."

On Shirley Avenue yesterday, a neighborhood resident pointed toward a field outside Malcolm X Elementary. Over there, he said. That's where the man ran after he'd shot all of his bullets at Julie Lombardi.

"Could you describe him?"

"Young black man," he said, and shrugged again.

The shrug said: What did you expect? There are criminal justice records attesting to a painful truth: The vast percentage of street criminals here (and the victims, too) are black men, invariably young. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson touched on it recently, talking of hearing footsteps behind him one night and feeling relieved to find a white person behind him.

But the blame's a little misplaced. Young black men didn't create the climate of fear all by themselves. Many were born into situations where their fathers took a hike and left them without a strong hand at home. Their lives were mapped out without them having the same chance as kids with two parents.

This city has one of the nation's highest rates of unwed teen-age mothers -- both white and black. But only by degree. Across the country, more than half of all black babies are born to single mothers. Of this number, one-third are born to teen-agers who are unequipped in every important way -- economically, socially, jTC psychologically -- to pull these children out of a decade's cycle of despair.

From this, you get a class of people now on a terrible course of self-destruction. From this, you get a kindergarten teacher randomly shot outside her school. From this, you get another generation of children, some of them sitting in a classroom at Malcolm X Elementary, who are coming to realize there are no sanctuaries in their lives, and who will begin to show us how they feel.

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