Douglass High student arrested in slaying Police say they found loaded gun on teen after scuffle at school

March 13, 1998|By Peter Hermann and Liz Bowie | Peter Hermann and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

A school police officer found a loaded handgun in the pocket of a 16-year-old Frederick Douglass High School student when he arrested him on a murder charge at the school, authorities said. The incident raises questions about whether the city's high schools should be equipped with metal detectors and school police armed.

The student was arrested and charged as an adult in the execution-style slaying of a man off school grounds in June.

School officials are grappling with discipline and security issues throughout the city.

Yesterday, students at Northern High School, which has twice made national headlines for student outbursts, were sent home early after someone shoved trash into a bathroom ventilation duct, sending smoke and odor throughout the building.

At Douglass, Joseph Thomas Branch, 16, whose last known address was in the 1100 block of N. Gilmor St., entered the school Tuesday with a .380 semiautomatic weapon in one of his pockets, said Baltimore School Police Chief Leonard Hamm. The school's doors are not equipped with metal detectors.

Branch's gun was discovered after he was arrested by an unarmed school police officer who had a warrant for his arrest and had been alerted that the youth was a student at the school.

Of the 19 high schools in Baltimore, only two -- Northern and Walbrook -- have devices that can detect guns or weapons. Guns -- from BB guns to handguns -- have been found on high school students 22 times this academic year, or about once a week.

In Washington, all 18 high schools and many middle schools have metal detectors and hand-held scanners to detect weapons.

At Northern, in addition to metal detectors at the doors, the school put bars this year on its windows so that weapons couldn't be passed through them.

But Hamm said Frederick Douglass -- a school where order generally is strictly maintained -- does not have chronic problems with weapons.

Police sought Branch at the school after discovering that his Gilmor Street address was a boarded-up rowhouse. Detectives gave school police Officer Rodney Coffield a photograph of Branch, and the officer spotted the student in the hallway Tuesday afternoon and arrested him after a scuffle. The gun was found after Branch was arrested, police said.

Baltimore Police Detective Oscar Requer, the homicide unit's lead investigator in the case, noted the danger of unarmed school police and said, "It's unfortunate."

Officer Andre Alston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 5, representing 90 school police officers on law enforcement matters, also believes school police should be armed.

"We want to meet force with force," he said. "If they have a weapon, what kind of a weapon are we going to meet them with? We are at a disadvantage. It doesn't look good if we come up against an armed person and we run."

But Hamm, who heads the school police force, disagrees. He said the force, which is separate from the city police force, has spent a lot of time training officers to handle armed people.

"We are trained to be proactive in handling problems. He [the officer] knew that someone was possibly armed. He planned for that. Suppose Officer Coffield had had a gun?" said Hamm, adding that it would have been dangerous to use it in a crowded school hallway.

Branch, who was charged as an adult with first-degree murder, was being held without bail yesterday at the Central Booking and Intake Center. He also was charged with two handgun violations.

He was the fourth person to be arrested in the slaying and he allegedly pulled the trigger, according to Requer.

In a dispute between two drug factions over territory, four people confronted Herman Eugene Cannon Jr. in front of Three Brothers Liquor Store in the 3100 block of Frederick Ave. on June 19. Cannon of the 1600 block of E. Eager St. was standing next to his twin brother when he was shot from about a foot away.

Branch is the only suspect in the shooting who is a city school student.

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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