In April, seven developmentally disabled children planted a small sapling outside their East Baltimore school in honor of Earth Day and in memory of those killed at Columbine High School in Colorado.
Yesterday, they discovered their 18-inch tree was gone, apparently ripped out by the roots.
A small laminated tag with the names of the young gardeners also was missing.
The apparent theft sent ripples through the Fairmount Avenue school, part of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, which treats children with severe neurological disorders. The school is six blocks south of the institute, which is at North Broadway and East Monument Street.
"The kids were asking, `Where's our tree?' " said their teacher, Jill Ellrich. "My only answer was, `I have no idea.' "
Ellrich sent an e-mail to employees, hoping to find out whether a worker mistakenly mowed the tree or thought it was a weed and pulled it up.
"I was wondering if anyone knew the whereabouts of the small pine tree that Room 90 planted on the playing field," the e-mail said. "The students went out to water it today and it was not to be found. This was very hard to explain to the students. If you know what happened, please let me know."
School officials did not report the missing tree to police, but a reporter's call to the Eastern District station got a quick response.
"There's never been a time that I walked into Kennedy Krieger that I did not want to cry," said Lt. William Robbins, a former homicide detective who dispatched a sergeant to investigate.
"Anything we can do to make their lives a little better, we will do it," Robbins said. "My heart goes out to those kids. They got me on their side."
Sgt. Richard Piel said, "Somebody just yanked the tree out of the ground" and added that crime has been a problem in the area.
Police said the pupils, who are 11 and 13 years old, watered the plant Friday.
They had planted it April 22, and some youngsters took such pride in their gardening that they prayed next to it.
Ellrich said she is not convinced that the tree was stolen but would like the mystery to be solved.
After she sent the e-mail, "a lot of people offered to buy us another tree. But I haven't heard any confessions yet," she said.