Fight, 2 small fires disrupt Southern High

Incident occurs outside after smoke on third floor leads to school evacuation

November 17, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Southern High School was disrupted yesterday when two small fires and a fight erupted, less than a week after Baltimore City School Police released statistics showing school crime had substantially diminished.

As school resumes today, city fire investigators said they will continue trying to determine what caused the school's sluggish evacuation when smoke filled several third-floor classrooms.

Parents go to school

A fight that followed the fires led several parents yesterday to barge into the school's office to demand answers about safety at the school on Covington Street.

The parents vowed to keep their children home until security and safety are guaranteed.

"Our children are entitled to an education, but instead they are scared to death," said Teresa Sutherland, who has a ninth-grader at the school. She said nearly three dozen students rushed to her home to flee the disturbance.

School officials said they are investigating the fight, but the officials and many students played down the parents' concerns, saying the school is safer than it has been in years.

Crime in Baltimore's 180 schools was down 31 percent, including a 17 percent decline at Southern, during the first two months of this school year compared with the same period last year, according to the statistics released last week.

Trash can set on fire

Yesterday's problems began at 12: 45 p.m. when a trash can was intentionally set on fire, said Principal Patricia L. Blansfield. But the smoke alarms sounded softly, the principal said, and she ordered an evacuation on the public address system.

Students spilled out of the school, and a fight broke out outside. (Fire Department officials said some students had not been evacuated by the time they arrived.)

Some students said the fight was racially motivated.

Students and school officials said a white male student had gone behind a tree to smoke a cigarette, and four black male students approached, asked for a cigarette and then beat the smoker when he refused.

The incident quickly escalated, students said, with friends from both sides joining the roughly five-minute fight.

"I got banked [jumped]," said Chris Szumlanski, a 12th-grader. "My friend got beat up bad by five big boys."

Paula Hamilton said she took her pregnant daughter, Victoria Burroughs, 15, to Mercy Medical Center with chest pains, after the girl was hit several times in the stomach.

No student injuries reported

Blansfield said she received no reports of injuries to students, and said she doubts that the incident was racially motivated. About two-thirds of Southern High School's 1,500 students are black, the principal said.

"That is a popular conception I believe our students like to feed into," Blansfield said. "It's a good excuse to tell Mom to allow you to stay home a couple of days."

Several of the parents who confronted Blansfield wanted to know why no school police officers or security guards were outside during the evacuation.

Sgt. John Fraer, who responded yesterday with six other school police officers to back up the three officers normally assigned to Southern, said the school's officers were tied up elsewhere.

He said one was processing a trespassing arrest, and another was in the school office arresting a female student armed with a box-cutter razor. The third was investigating the fire, Fraer said.

"By the time we got down there, the kids had scattered and left," he said.

Besides extra school police, city Fire Department inspectors were called to the school to search for fire-code violations.

Inspector Richard Beverly said that while firefighters were extinguishing the fire in the trash can, they noticed that another small fire had started earlier in the day and had burned itself out.

Beverly said that fire did not set off the smoke alarms or the sprinkler system.

He issued no violation notices. School officials were trying to repair the alarm system.

Classroom water damage

No damage estimates were available last night, but three classrooms sustained water damage, Blansfield said.

It was the first reported fire at the school this year, Blansfield said.

Most students interviewed yesterday said they feel safe at Southern.

"This school is so much better than before," said Tashia Childs, an 11th-grader. "That fight was nothing more than territorial fighting."

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