After school, the wary walk home

October 14, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

The 12-block walk home from Lombard Middle School takes Montez Holman past some of the good and some of the ugly on Caroline Street in East Baltimore.

There is Dunbar Middle School, whose students sometimes mix it up with Lombard Middle children; the Douglass housing development, where the hazards of drug-dealing persist; and dozens of vacant and boarded homes.

Signs of past trouble are plentiful. The large front window of one Caroline Street barber shop is boarded, the pavement is littered with broken bottles. Stores and shops have become near-fortresses with steel gates.

But also along the way there are the elderly people that Montez, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, speaks to near a shopping center. There's a woman who sits on a chair in front of a rowhouse doing a crossword puzzle. Adults lounge on "Baltimore: The City That Reads" benches to talk or read. And there is the welcome sight of large churches that still seem majestic, though having lost some of their exterior luster over the years.

Among the churches is First Baptist Church, the oldest black Baptist church in Maryland. It is one of six Safe Haven Network churches that Montez could duck into if he fears that a band of teens will "bank" him -- slang for beat. The havens are identified by blue-and-yellow signs with a smiling face and the words: Safe Haven Network -- Our Children are Safe Here. Their purpose is to protect children from bullies and bullets.

On Tuesday, before Montez begins his journey, a group of boys stand on Caroline Street across from Lombard Middle. So far, no trouble is in sight. It is a relatively quiet day, "a good day," says Robert Hopkins, the school's princial.

"The school is a pretty safe place to be," says Mr. Hopkins. "Ninety percent of our problems come when [students] leave here. There is somebody on this corner or that corner or that corner waiting to beat them up."

Mr. Hopkins and a school police officer constantly look around for signs of trouble at dismissal, 2:45 p.m. They survey Caroline, then Lombard.

East Baltimoreans will tell you that small bands of teens formed by alliances of neighborhoods, schools and social groups have victimized innocent -- and not so innocent -- children for generations. But children believe the streets are more dangerous now because fights starting with fists can explode into gun battles.

"Boys don't always fight these days. They'll go get a gun," said Tiffany Pointer, 13, a Lombard Middle eighth-grader who is walking with Montez. She said girls occasionally will "bank" other girls in arguments over boyfriends.

Some Lombard Middle students take MTA buses home, but others walk more than a mile. Some, like Montez, walk two or three days a week when they don't have bus tickets.

Eight churches participate

Eight churches in a small slice of East Baltimore have opened their doors to students from 11 schools in the Safe Haven Network to give refuge to children.

Police crime statistics in the Dunbar and Somerset Homes neighborhoods, a 21-square-block area that Montez goes through, show one homicide, two rapes, 19 robberies, 28 aggravated assaults and 13 drug arrests in the first seven months of the year.

The havens are not located in the most dangerous areas of East Baltimore, police say, although Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has said he plans to expand the program.

In the Barclay neighborhood, about half the size of the combined Dunbar and Somerset areas, there were three homicides, two rapes, 54 robberies, 68 aggravated assaults and 189 narcotics arrests during the same period. Barclay was raided by police in a major action in March.

But Montez' walk home has more than its share of hazards.

On the corner of Caroline and Lombard streets across from Montez's school, scattered bands of teen-aged boys stand watching and waiting as the 900 students pour out of the school's designated exit.

Warned by principal

One of the boys across the street is a 14-year-old, who is mounting a girl's bicycle and wearing a black headband with earflaps. He motions for the principal to come across the street to him. Normally, he's not allowed this close to the school. Not since he was kicked out of Lombard last year. A classmate reported that he had pointed a handgun while in the building.

Once in a while, the principal warns him not to start trouble.

The boy is trying to reassure Mr. Hopkins. He tries to sound

sincere. But the principal is not buying the line.

"I don't [come] here to start anything. I'm not trying to get locked up again," the boy says in defense to the most recent warning a few days earlier. "I'm just here to pick up my cousin. And to talk to girls."

The principal leaves the boy with another reminder about keeping clean and walks away.

"I would call him a career criminal, at his age," Mr. Hopkins says, shaking his head. Mr. Hopkins also worries about battles among students in his school who live in three public housing developments -- Flag House, Perkins and Lafayette. "They don't mix except to fight," he says.

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