Despite precautions, violence finds teacher

February 03, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

As gunfire rang out more and more frequently in the Northwest Baltimore neighborhood surrounding Malcolm X Elementary, Julie Lombardi often worried about her kindergarten students -- and herself -- becoming a target of violence.

She made a point of leaving the school -- where she's taught for two decades -- before nightfall, kept a wary eye for strangers, locked her car doors and never dawdled, her husband said last night.

But violence found Mrs. Lombardi Tuesday afternoon, when she was shot in the face during an apparent carjacking attempt as she left the school parking lot. If the bullet had hit an inch higher, she might have been blinded or killed; yesterday, she was in fair and stable condition at Sinai Hospital.

At the hospital, where Mrs. Lombardi will undergo surgery, her husband, Martin, choked back tears and said he hopes she never returns to the school -- or any others in violent city neighborhoods.

"She worried about her kids getting home as much as herself," he said. "It's a little disconcerting, to say the least, that you can leave in the middle of the day and this type of thing could happen."

Mrs. Lombardi, who lives in Timonium, left the school in the 2800 block of Shirley Avenue shortly before 4 p.m., when a man approached her Acura Legend from the passenger side. He fired at least five shots at the car, including one that hit her in the face.

Mr. Lombardi is sure that someone from outside the community surrounding Malcolm X pulled the trigger.

His wife gave too much for too long, he said, winning the respect, admiration and love of the community's children and parents.

At the school, Principal Myrtle Washington, parents, teachers and psychologists sent by the school system to counsel children did their best to console one another yesterday. Workers tried to bleach away the bloody trail left on the school sidewalk -- blood spilled when the 41-year-old teacher ran to the school. And everybody asked the questions that defy explanation:

How could someone shoot a kindergarten teacher on a sunny afternoon next to busy Reisterstown Road, and escape? When a teacher is shot in her own car next to the school where she's taught for 20 years, is anyone safe anywhere?

Outside the school, in the brilliant afternoon sunshine, 5-year-old Dwayne Elmore, his head peeking from a blue hooded sweat shirt, stared at the ground.

'If they shoot, I run'

"I'm real fast, and if they shoot, I run and duck," said Dwayne, a student in Mrs. Lombardi's class. "Anybody can get shot, but I never think they would shoot my teacher, though. I know some places don't have guns and shooting. I don't know where, though."

His mother, Jessica Elmore, recalled that she struggled for words after her son burst out while watching TV news Tuesday night: "That's my teacher! That's Mrs. Lombardi!"

"I told him it's a cold world out there, and people do things because they're sick in their minds, and he has to be careful -- very, very careful always," she said.

Margaret Boulware, another parent, stood by the school's entrance, looking out over ice-covered fields and the elevated subway tracks just beyond them.

"Children, our children shouldn't have a care in the world, and no child should be exposed to this sort of violence," she said.

"It's a shame really you have to wait for something like this to happen before people realize how bad it's gotten. It's just gotten too bad out here, and this could happen to anybody."

That it happened to Julie Lombardi made it even harder to bear.

She was, said Mrs. Washington, "a teacher's teacher" -- one who taught generations of some families, gave clothes from her son Nicholas to poor children in her classes, visited homes and even allowed students to spend the night at her home.

Mrs. Washington said the shooting brought an outpouring of prayers, cards, letters and flowers from parents, former teachers and students. Still, she gave up trying to make sense of the senseless.

"As a person -- I know my title is principal -- but I need somebody really to explain it to me," she said. "I really do because for me, human life is important, and this to me was just a senseless act."

Over the years, Mr. Lombardi said, his wife came to love the neighborhood and the school, where she began her career upon graduating from the University of Maryland Baltimore County 20 years ago. He, too, taught at the Malcolm X beside his wife and former high school sweetheart for about six years before leaving the profession.

Blessings counted

After the tears, Mr. Lombardi found hope and counted blessings. "Five bullets are fired, and one hits her and doesn't hit any major organs, and the prognosis is good. I feel lucky."

Mrs. Lombardi's surgeon, Dr. Ronald Schuster, said she is progressing well and was removed from the Critical Care Unit yesterday morning. She will undergo surgery this weekend for numerous facial fractures caused by the bullet that entered her left cheek and exited through her right cheek.

Police had not made an arrest last night. But Sgt. Goldie Phillips Jr. of the Northwestern District said police have leads that could bring an arrest. He declined to elaborate.

Anyone with information on the shooting is asked to call the district police station at 396-2466. The Baltimore Teachers Union is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction; its number is 358-6600.

"This has really rattled everybody because it happened in broad daylight next to a school, and we think of schools as oases of safety," said union spokeswoman Linda Prudente. "But they are oases no longer."

At the corner of Reisterstown and Shirley, Helen Betha, a veteran crossing guard, put it a bit differently: "Used to be we worried about people breaking into teachers' cars. Now, they're getting shot in the face. This is what our city's become. It's sad. It makes you want to cry, you know?"

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