Students, teachers call Northern out of control

Violence escalates at city school with new administration

`Ugly, ugly place to be'

January 09, 2002|By Erika Niedowski and Liz Bowie | Erika Niedowski and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Seventeen-year-old Danielle D. Adams has seen a student at Northern High School pull out a knife in the hallway. She has witnessed fights in the cafeteria and bathrooms and smelled marijuana in the stairwells. Once she saw a boy get attacked and thrown out the window of a bus.

"You shouldn't have to go to school fearing for your life every day," she said.

The Northeast Baltimore high school - where a freshman was beaten nearly to death in early November by a group that allegedly included fellow students - has spiraled out of control under new leadership this academic year, according to interviews with teachers, students and parents.

The school system reported 28 safety-related incidents and 14 arrests at Northern in September, October and November. Students were caught with knives 11 times. Five times, a student or staff member was assaulted. Twice, a student was robbed.

The violence peaked in November, when Willis Reese, 15, was left for dead on the sidewalk outside the building, bashed in the head with a baseball bat and stripped of his pants and shoes.

Getting people to talk about conditions at Northern on the record is difficult: Teachers are worried about their jobs. Parents and their children fear retaliation.

But many Northern staffers, students and parents tell the story of a chaotic school that has been poorly managed and, at times, become unsafe.

"There's probably more order on the streets than there is in that school," said a teacher who has been at Northern for several years and who has deadbolted her classroom door to keep out children who don't belong.

"I've seen so much crazy stuff up there, it's pathetic," said the parent of an 11th-grader, who witnessed a hall monitor lock a group of dawdling girls in the bathroom until they screamed to be let out.

Principal Betty Donaldson declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article, and the school system has refused for the two months since the attack to allow reporters inside Northern during school hours.

"I wanted to give everyone an opportunity for things to calm," said city schools' Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo, who found the school "very, very orderly" when she visited it in December.

Russo has called a news conference at Northern for Friday, which will include a "walk-through" for the news media.

Situated just off Northern Parkway, Northern is the third-largest of the city's nine neighborhood high schools, with about 2,000 students.

The attendance rate through mid-December was 77 percent, just below the neighborhood high school average. Less than a third of entering freshmen usually make it to graduation. Of those who did graduate in the 1999-2000 school year, less than half said they planned to go to college.

Moves to increase security

Russo said she has taken steps to increase security at Northern since Reese's beating. She has added extra school police and hall monitors, hired additional assistant principals and purchased new doors to replace ones that have been damaged and chained shut - a code violation for which the school was cited by the fire marshal twice last fall.

School administrators have repeatedly declared the building safe. But that's not what those who work and attend classes there every day describe.

Students swear at and threaten teachers, roam the halls during class, light fires in trash cans and lockers, gamble in classrooms and stairwells, throw food and smoke marijuana in the cafeteria, break down doors, crawl in and out of windows, vandalize classrooms, drink alcohol and buy and sell drugs, those interviewed said.

In many cases, there are few consequences for bad behavior, and teaching and learning suffer as a result, they said.

One parent said she has left work repeatedly to pull her children out of Northern or try to get information about an incident."[My daughter] calls me during the day, begging and pleading. She'll say, the kids are fighting up here or they've got the police up here again," the parent said. "It's just crazy. I just don't know how they expect these children to learn under these conditions."

Danielle Adams, who transferred out of Northern last month, said the year began when she was given a 10th-grade schedule, even though she's in 11th grade. She didn't know who the new principal was for three weeks. When Donaldson finally held an orientation, students booed her and made obscene gestures until she handed the microphone to someone else, Danielle and a staff member said.

Like many students, Danielle tried to avoid the cafeteria - she ate in her band teacher's room - because of the chaos and overcrowding. Often, children have to stand up to eat, she and teachers said.

"There was at least one fight every day in the cafeteria," she said.

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