Issuing what she called a "cry for help" in the fight to gain control of her rowdy school, Northern High School Principal Alice Morgan-Brown yesterday handed out conditional suspensions to nearly 1,200 of her 1,800 students and requested conferences with each of their parents.
Brown's actions -- which school officials describe as the most sweeping disciplinary action in district history -- came after two days in the past week in which nearly two-thirds of the children in her school openly defied her instructions.
Brown said last night that the ousted students would be able to return to school as early as today and that she suspended them mostly to make a point. She has requested that parents of all suspended students meet with staff at the school at 3 p.m. Friday.
Last Friday, Brown instructed students at the sprawling northeast Baltimore school on Pinewood Avenue to report to their homeroom classes at 2: 20 p.m. to pick up their report cards. Most students did not comply.
On Monday, Brown repeated her instructions three times on the school's intercom, but again found hundreds of students roaming the hallways at 2: 20 p.m., preparing to go home at 2: 30. Brown -- a middle-aged woman with a no-nonsense countenance -- darted from her office and placed herself between the crowd of students and the front doors, which are always locked for security reasons. She demanded that the students return to their homerooms, but they refused and chanted, "Hell, no, we won't go!"
Fearing that they might grow even more boisterous, Brown told the students she would open the doors and let them out. But she also warned them that anyone who didn't go back to homeroom would be suspended.
When the school doors flung open, the students bolted from the building.
"They decided to be rebellious," Brown said. "We're here to do a job, but it's not just on us. We need everyone, including parents, to help us.
"We have to understand these students can't be in charge," she said. "I am going to demand that they do what I tell them. They are not going to run this school."
Brown's actions culminate a long battle to rein in a school that has been out of control.
Students roam halls
At Northern, dozens -- some say hundreds -- of students roam the halls all day without going to class. False fire alarms, locker fires, bomb threats and armed fights are regular occurrences. Some students say drugs and alcohol are as easy to find inside the school as books and pencils.
On the first day of school this year, which the city school board touted as the beginning of a new era in Baltimore's schools, Northern was in disarray, with misconduct and administrative problems.
Students lounged in the cafeteria and auditorium, or wandered the halls among tipped-over soft drink cups. Teachers found their assignments switched, their class lists incomplete or their rooms stripped of all the furniture.
The deteriorating situation has prompted the hiring of a private security firm to maintain order.
Brown said that although there has been some improvement in discipline since September, students are still ignoring orders to attend class rather than loiter in the halls.
She said she has ordered students into their classrooms and then found them minutes later back in the halls.
Brown said she has reached the limit of her tolerance for the conditions at the school, and it's time for changes.
She admitted yesterday that her action Monday afternoon when confronted with a chanting horde might have been in part a personal reaction, but she defended it nonetheless.
Brown said she has sent numerous letters to parents asking for their support at the school and received no reaction.
She got plenty of reaction last night, though, when angry students and parents confronted her on the school grounds.
In a scene that included shouting and crying salted with profanity, one father and daughter, Larry and Carrie Neal, protested Carrie's suspension.
'This ain't right'
"This ain't right," Carrie shouted at Brown with tears running down her face.
She said she had returned to her homeroom as directed but her teacher was not there. She also said she had been suspended three times this year for not attending a class that she had transferred out of. Attempts by her mother to resolve the problem, she said, had failed. And now she was afraid that colleges would turn her down because of the suspensions.
"I am tired of this up at this school," said Larry Neal. "She [Brown] runs this school like a dictatorship."
A mother, with her three children beside her, approached Brown and calmly discussed several problems. She was told all three children could come back and that the suspension would not be on their records.
Latunda Penn, a junior who was also among those suspended, said Brown was largely responsible for the chaos in the school.