Troubling profile of life in Northern High unfolds School lacks control, organization, say faculty and parents

November 21, 1997|By Stephen Henderson and Liz Bowie | Stephen Henderson and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Northern High School teacher Mary Robinson sits at home every day, afraid to return to her typing class. A 16-year-old student who routinely disrupted her lessons, cursed her out and even threatened to "drop her" is still in class -- despite a police report, a union grievance and a six-page school discipline report that documented his unruly actions.

Robinson doesn't need to know that 1,200 students got suspended from Northern this week to understand just how out of control the troubled northeast Baltimore school has become. For two months, she lived it every day in her class.

"No one took preventive measures to stop this student from doing what he was doing," Robinson said, an assertion that Northern Principal Alice Morgan Brown disputes.

"I understand that this student has issues in his personal life that may explain his behavior, but I'm concerned about my well-being," Robinson said.

Two days after Brown suspended nearly two-thirds of her students for openly defying her, a troubling profile of life inside the school is emerging, according to interviews with school officials and teachers, parents and students.

Brown says she was forced to suspend the students to make a strong statement to parents: Get involved, and help control your children. Parents and students -- many of whom angrily confronted Brown outside the school yesterday morning -- say Brown's lack of organization and authority is the problem.

Interim school chief Robert F. Schiller refused to back Brown's actions but stopped short of saying he would remove her. Instead, he said at a news conference, "I think there are some other options that could have been explored," other than the mass suspensions.

Suspending 1,200 students at one time, Schiller said, is "disturbing to me. Our whole intent is to have students in school."

Schiller suggested that Brown should not have required 1,800 students to report to their homerooms to pick up their report cards all at once on Monday at 2: 20 p.m. Filling the hallways, he said, is "setting yourself up."

After Brown made the announcement Monday, she went to the front of the school and was met by an angry mob of students who defied her instructions, chanting, "Hell no, we won't go."

Brown opened the doors and let them out, but threatened suspension to those who refused to go back to their homerooms.

Teachers such as Robinson sit on the front lines of the battle to rein in Northern's rowdy students. In a grievance report filed with the union, she said she was called "a bitch" and a "whore" by the student who she said later threatened to kill her.

"You know, it takes a whole village to educate a child, and it takes consistency and authority across the board," Robinson said. "That's what's not happening in this school. It didn't happen in my case, and it doesn't happen for other children. That's how things have gotten out of control."

Brown said she did take action to discipline the student. She suspended him and had a conference with his parents.

Other Northern teachers have complained to the Baltimore Teachers Union that they don't feel safe and that they don't feel comfortable monitoring the halls, said the union's president, Marcia Brown. On the first day of school, student schedules were not complete and teachers didn't have class lists. And students complain that they still can't get the identification cards they need to scan into the school's computerized attendance tracking system. They say they are suspended for not attending classes they have transferred out of.

"Day after day when things don't happen, kids come to expect this," said Marcia Brown.

The situation has gotten so bad, she said, that teachers are asking to be transferred.

"We have had a number of complaints and serious concerns," she said.

Schiller would not say whether he would take disciplinary action against Alice Morgan Brown, who was given the job two years ago by then-Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, as part of an effort to get control of the school.

While some parents and teachers feel the problems rest on the principal's shoulders, she is clearly confronted with a perplexing challenge.

Northern draws children from a varied mix of backgrounds and abilities -- from neighborhoods as far away and disparate as Hampden and Greenmount, and Brown says she has a hard time getting some students to obey rules.

Some large city high schools -- such as City College or Baltimore Polytechnic Institute -- also draw from diverse backgrounds, but their students are more highly motivated, having chosen their school for its specialty. Northern is a local high school.

In the 1995-1996 school year, 77 percent of Northern's students were chronically absent, 23 percent of students were in special education and 44 percent qualified for free or reduced price lunches.

It is a place, too, where students are regularly arrested for assault. They carry drugs, knives and guns. In September and October, school police arrested 15 students for assaults.

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