It's a school, but the aura is of prison Chaos: This year, it's Southern High's turn to come unraveled dirty, crowded, violent. The staff struggles to make a little education possible.

October 30, 1998|By Stephen Henderson and Joe Mathews | Stephen Henderson and Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

"Lockdown! Lockdown!" shouts a teacher, and suddenly the students on the third floor of Southern High School scatter in every direction.

Most slip into classrooms before doors are shut and bolted, as lockdown requires.

But the brave, the defiant -- and the criminal -- scurry off to Stairwells 5 and 6 -- two areas of the South Baltimore school that hall monitors such as Mike McRae, a former prison guard, rarely patrol.

There, cigarette butts, broken glass and chicken bones -- muck enough to cause more than one student to fall -- cover stairs in need of new paint.

Graffiti -- "Man From Flag House" and "Cherry Hill 4 Eva" -- tell the tale of the neighborhood turf wars whose violence spills daily into Southern's hallways.

Between the second and third floors, a 16-year-old flashes a handgun he keeps in his waistband. He is not a student, he says, but he sneaks into the school to "watch the back" of two friends who need protection.

Lockdown -- where anyone not in a locked classroom or possessing a hall pass is subject to punishment -- is intended to find and evict intruders like him. These hall sweeps are an almost daily occurrence, especially after fights.

Principal Darline Lyles has all but ceded the stairwells to youthful miscreants.

"I'msure there are streets in Baltimore you won't walk down," Lyles says. "I ask my students not to go into Stairwells 5 and 6 for the same reasons. It's about personal safety."

When the lockdown ends, the stairwell's denizens know to make their move. They walk out the front door with the lucky seniors who are on track to graduate and are thus excused early each day to attend afternoon jobs.

The school calls this job programming. Twelfth-graders call it "work release."

"Look at the words, 'lockdown,' 'work release' -- it's like we go to a jail," says Sandy Pearce, a 17-year-old senior who is so angry about school conditions that she has begun taking notes and soliciting letters of complaint from students.

"It is out of control in here, and the teachers seem like they're scared of the students. I don't know what happened this year. The school was always much better than this."

Indeed, it was. For all the danger in its stairwells, Southern hardly fits the stereotype of the troubled inner-city high school.

Its principal is widely viewed as smart and aggressive. Southern is home to a citywide biotechnology program, a top basketball team and a strong ROTC program.

As recently as two years ago, city schools officials praised Southern as a place where administrators were making gains in the struggle against school violence and high dropout rates.

But every year in Baltimore, a few of the city's high schools spin horribly out of control while school officials scramble to hold them together.

Last year it was Northern, which caught top administrators' attention after principal Alice Morgan Brown suspended 1,200 children in one day. Lake Clifton was wild the year before, Patterson the year before that.

This year, Southern is unraveling. And while city and state officials, from schools chief Robert Booker to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and state Rep. George W. Della Jr., have noticed, they seem powerless to stop it.

"We've had problems at Lake Clifton, Patterson and Northern," said 1st District City Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. "When are we going to get a handle on the problem?"

Della added: "I believe Darline Lyles is doing everything she can. I believe if she had more to work with, Darline could run a good high school here. This school is sitting on a time bomb."

Victim of luck, planning

A combination of poor planning and bad luck knocked Southern askew this year.

Lyles says she lost 13 teaching positions and two administrators over the summer, largely because city school officials predicted that her student population would shrink when a new high school opened in Cherry Hill.

She lost three "safe school facilitators," who roam the building looking for trouble spots. And a city schools grant that funded her "twilight" school for troubled and alternative students dried up.

On the first day of school, Lyles watched as more than 1,500 students filed through the front doors -- about 200 more than she was expecting. Some of the new arrivals had been kicked out of other schools; others were city kids who had been caught faking addresses to attend county schools.

And because Southern pulls students from neighborhoods as far away and different as Curtis Bay and East Baltimore, Cherry Hill and Brooklyn, the predictable turf fights erupt daily.

The violence this year was too much for an overmatched staff.

"Kids from Flag House [Courts] and Cherry Hill [public housing projects] have been going at it inside this building for years, but ,, this year I just didn't have the staff to deal with it," Lyles said. "At the end of October, they do a recount of students and we'll get a staff adjustment. But until then, we just have to make do."

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