Ex-Nation of Islam guards working at Douglass High 3 hired as mentors, monitors at city school

February 03, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

When the Nation of Islam Security Agency lost its city contract last year to guard some of Baltimore's high-rise public housing projects, Kimberly Albright lost her paycheck.

For a year, she had patrolled West Baltimore's Lexington Terrace apartments, a job with perils but a wage that fed her two children. That ended in November when a new guard assumed her post after a federal order gave the lucrative contract to a competitor.

But that legal tangle has benefited a Baltimore high school looking for help.

On Wednesday, sharply dressed in the Nation of Islam's trademark black suit and red bow tie, Ms. Albright started working as a monitor and mentor in the halls of Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School. The pay is $9 an hour, but the reward is far more, she said.

"My daughter will soon be a student here," she said. "I want it to be safe for her."

So does Principal Rose Backus-Davis, who hired Ms. Albright and two other former Nation of Islam Security Agency guards as role models for the school's 1,443 students. The three mentors will serve as links between guidance counselors and the roughly 30 students who regularly skip class to find trouble, Ms. Backus-Davis said.

The mentors, armed with walkie-talkies but no weapons, were laid off by the NOI Security Agency when the company lost the contract. But they still wear the agency uniform when they work.

None are members of the Nation of Islam, a black-nationalist organization led by Minister Louis Farrakhan.

"As far as Farrakhan is concerned, he has his belief system and his followers," Ms. Backus-Davis said. "But that is not part of this picture."

The school has 10 other mentors, including a group of ministers' wives from New Shiloh Baptist Church. Two Baltimore Schools Police officers also are on duty five days a week.

In September, Ms. Backus-Davis became principal of Frederick Douglass, which looms like a brick factory along Gwynns Falls Parkway. The needs at Douglass are great. The high school is one of 40 city schools marked for state takeover if student achievement doesn't improve.

To hire additional hall monitors, Ms. Backus-Davis used money from a discretionary fund created two years ago when schools were given more control to pay for campus improvements.

Ms. Backus-Davis's logic is simple: Put teachers back to work in classrooms rather than settling student disputes in hallways. And the idea coincided with the termination of the Nation of Islam Security Agency's $4.6 million contract to guard public housing projects.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ruled last year that the city should have awarded the contract to Wells Fargo Guard Services, which bid $1.1 million less for the job.

But now the uniforms of the Nation of Islam patrol the Douglass corridor. And while the clothes are evocative, Ms. Backus-Davis said she hopes the fashion serves as a model. "It sends a message to kids that there is a manner in which to be dressed that is acceptable," she said.

The new mentors would not talk about why they still wear the Nation of Islam uniform -- and NOI officials did not return phone calls yesterday -- but students already have noticed the new monitors.

"They've made an impression," said Eric Artson, a Douglass senior. "It'll help keep kids out of the halls. Keep them out and teachers can do their jobs."

"The clothes they wear -- it's cool by me," said Malia Terrel, a freshman. "I've met some of them. They seem like nice people."

School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said yesterday that Ms. Backus-Davis's move to improve campus control was an example of what schools should be doing with increased autonomy.

"There is a great deal of respect in some communities for the Nation of Islam and what they represent: clean living, discipline, self-esteem," he said. "I'd be more alarmed if there weren't attention being paid toward improving the climate around the school."

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