Questions arise after principal's death He was living at school, pupils and parents say

December 23, 1998|By Stephen Henderson and Liz Bowie | Stephen Henderson and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF Sun researcher Robert Schrott and staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

Students and staff at an East Baltimore school began yesterday to grapple with the death Monday of their principal, Robert Thomas, even as new questions surfaced about his habits and his life.

The Sun learned yesterday that Thomas, the 51-year-old principal at Charles Carroll of Carrollton School, had been evicted from his apartment on North Charles Street and was widely believed to be living at the school.

Police and fire officials said yesterday they are continuing their investigations into a fire that charred Thomas' office Friday.

According to school officials, Thomas signed out of the school at 8 p.m. Friday. At 8:19, a fire alarm sounded and by 8:24 firefighters had discovered the blaze, which ultimately did $25,000 damage to Thomas' office. Fire officials said yesterday they have no reason to believe anyone was in the building at the time of the fire.

School officials acknowledged yesterday that Thomas had been placed on administrative leave as a result of the circumstances surrounding the fire.

"As a routine measure, while the situation with the fire was being investigated, we thought it appropriate to place him on administrative leave," said Gary Thrift, Thomas' supervisor.

It was moments after Thomas learned of the decision to place him on leave that Thomas was struck and killed by a 1994 fTC Oldsmobile while walking against traffic on Orleans Street.

"He was not noticeably upset," Thrift said when asked about Thomas' demeanor when he left the school early Monday morning. "He was calm and collected."

"Dr. Thomas has left us with a lot of unanswered questions," Thrift continued. "Perhaps it is best if they remain unanswered."

Inside the school yesterday morning as children arrived, many stopped to ask faculty where Thomas was or if it was true he was dead. School staff had set out doughnuts and prepared a morning lesson plan on grief and loss to help the children deal with Thomas' death.

Teachers were given a script to read to their classes about the incident.

"Boys and girls, by now many of you may have already learned about the loss of one of our family members, our principal Dr. Robert G. Thomas," the script began. It went on to talk about the pain pupils might feel from his loss, but encouraged them to remember the good things they knew about Thomas. After reading the script, teachers told their pupils about appropriate ways to react to grief, including crying, praying, talking to friends and writing out their feelings. They also identified resources for the children -- other teachers and supportive adults -- who could help them deal with their loss.

Thrift, who supervised Thomas for 3 1/2 years in city schools, described him yesterday as a sharp administrator who had served the city well in a number of different schools. He was also an accomplished musician, Thrift said.

On a recent trip to Texas to learn more about the curriculum being used at Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Thrift says Thomas spotted an antique organ in someone's office.

"While we were there, Dr. Thomas, in a very spontaneous gesture, got up and hit it," Thrift said. "It was like Sunday gone to meeting. We all delighted in it."

Thrift said Thomas, who had a master's degree in music as well as a master's and doctorate in education, began his Baltimore career as an assistant principal at Northwestern High. He later served as assistant principal at Dunbar High, Ben Franklin Middle and Maree Garnett Faring Elementary.

"After that, we felt he was ready for this opportunity," Thrift said. Thomas was appointed principal at Charles Carroll of Carrollton in August.

Cynthia Brown, who has children in the school, said Thomas was a good principal and a "wonderful person."

"He helped children," she said. Brown said he helped her sixth-grade son get a transfer to another school.

Brown also said, though, that it was common knowledge among pupils and parents that Thomas was living in the school.

"I feel as though, 'Why did they let this go on so far?' " she asked.

On Monday, she passed by the accident scene after Thomas had been hit and killed.

"I saw the accident. It just took my heart," she said.

Pub Date: 12/23/98

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