School officials grapple for control Education chief acts to restore order at Southern High

October 31, 1998|By Stephen Henderson and Joe Mathews | Stephen Henderson and Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

First, teachers, school police and administrators will conduct random weapon searches. Then, security cameras will be installed in hallways and stairwells.

Thirteen of the school's most violent students have been transferred to other places, and 28 more will be referred for long-term suspensions.

Southern High School, Baltimore schools chief Robert Booker says, will not be ruled by the violence and chaos that had become so widespread that administrators urged students to avoid certain parts of the building. It will not be a revolving door for gun-wielding criminals, marijuana-smokers or other juvenile delinquents. And it will not be a staging ground for neighborhood turf wars.

Booker said he is determined that Southern, located in the Federal Hill neighborhood, will be a successful school -- safe and secure for all to attend.

"Perhaps we should have done some of these things earlier," Booker said. "Maybe if we had realized the problem was this bad before, we could have had things like the cameras in place. But that's hindsight. Right now, we're just going to make sure that we do what needs to be done to get control."

He met with Principal Darline Lyles and other school officials this week and came up with a plan to rein in the school's wildest students. Already, Booker has doubled the number of police officers at the school from three to six and released funds to hire additional staff.

At a meeting Wednesday with teachers, administrators, parents, students and community members, Booker hopes to come up with additional solutions to Southern's problems.

Teachers union

Meanwhile, Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English condemned the school board yesterday for allowing Southern -- and other city schools -- to get so bad.

"The community should be outraged at the school board's negligence in securing safe environments in our schools," said English, who held an afternoon news conference after visiting Southern yesterday morning.

She said she was shocked to find dark, dingy hallways right outside the school's main office. She said the union has fielded several complaints this year from teachers who have been injured, including Patrick L. Reed, whose hand was nearly severed when a student slammed it in a door.

"This union has always held safety as a top concern of its educators, yet the system continues to fail to provide safe facilities for students, teachers and paraprofessionals," English said.

English said she plans to meet with Booker and the school board next week to address the issues at Southern.

Board members Ed Brody and Carl Stokes, who have been working with Booker to get control of the school, said they felt confident the school system was on top of the situation at Southern.

"We knew things weren't good. We knew it was a tinderbox," Brody said. "Now at this meeting next Wednesday, we plan to talk about other actions that may need to be taken."

Impact on attendance

At the school yesterday morning, some students said they noticed a dip in attendance.

Lisa Lippy, a 10th-grader, sat outside after 9 a.m., contemplating whether to go in. "People aren't coming today because they're mostly afraid," she said, surveying the sparse crowd of arrivals. "I came down here to see the action."

Laura Lee, a South Baltimore hair designer, kept her freshman daughter Lauren home yesterday.

"My daughter should be at school today. But I told my daughter she has permission not to go to school if it isn't safe." She said her ex-husband's fiancee, who lives in Columbia, had called her repeatedly to say she could send her daughter to school in Howard County. "Why should I have to send my daughter away to get an education?"

At 9: 30 a.m., Charles Matthews, a junior, walked out of Southern and headed for the Inner Harbor. The 16-year-old said it had been his first day back at school after spending "a few days" in jail in connection with a crime he would not disclose.

'Crazier than jail'

He said he was nervous about the return to school, and his safety. "It's crazy in there, crazier than jail," he said. "There's too much going on. I worry because I got family in there."

Some elected officials called yesterday for citywide changes in the way the school system organizes its high schools and deals with disruptive youths.

Second District City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young said there should be an immediate review of student records to identify repeat offenders, and they should be moved out of the schools.

Del. Timothy D. Murphy, a 47th District Democrat, said he had written to Booker and called for the immediate removal of "disruptive youth" and the "fast-tracking" of an alternative school. He said Southern's boundary area must be reduced. "There are too many kids from too many different places. It needs a comprehensive solution."

Annabelle Sher, education aide to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, said complaints from Federal Hill residents about Southern students have dropped, thanks to cooperation between city and school officials and neighborhood representatives.

"We're hoping Wednesday's meeting will help build on that progress," Sher said. "I think we just have to wait until then."

But for some, the wait for Southern to turn around has already been too long. Shirley Coolahan came to the school yesterday to arrange her grandson's transfer to a school in Lansdowne, Baltimore County, where she is moving. She praised Lyles but said the school needs help. While she was in the school, she visited one of the women's bathrooms, notorious this year for overflowing toilets and other filthy conditions.

"It looks awful in there," Coolahan said. "I'm glad he's getting out."

Pub Date: 10/31/98

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