Northern is target of union concerns

City teachers plan grievance on safety

January 10, 2002|By Erika Niedowski and Liz Bowie | Erika Niedowski and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Teachers Union is planning to file a grievance today about safety conditions at Northern High School, even as the City Council president is calling for the principal to be removed.

The union and Council President Sheila Dixon said they were responding to a news report yesterday in which teachers, parents and students described the Northeast Baltimore school as out of control and, at times, unsafe.

School system Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo and Northern Principal Betty Donaldson declined to comment yesterday, but they will hold a news conference tomorrow at the school.

Other public officials are calling for action, describing the situation as "intolerable" or "not acceptable." One high school reform expert came to the defense of school officials.

According to the union, the grievance to be filed with Russo on behalf of Northern staff says in part that the school - where a 15-year-old freshman suffered a near-fatal beating in November - "failed to institute measures to ensure that the students and staff are safe."

Union President Sharon Y. Blake said the union's concerns include the school's problems maintaining order and enforcing discipline as well as the lack of photo identification cards for students.

"We take our lead from our members, and I think when we hear members ask us to work on their behalf to get additional security and get additional measures in place, then we work to do that," she said.

Blake said a union grievance was first filed with Donaldson on Dec. 21 but that her response this week was "not good enough."

Russo has said the school system has taken steps to improve Northern - including bringing back photo ID cards - since the Nov. 9 beating of Willis Reese. She says the building is now safe and under control.

But Dixon said stronger action is called for at the 2,000-student school, the third-largest of the city's nine neighborhood high schools.

`How can anyone learn?'

"The principal of that school needs to leave, because obviously there are problems with the leadership and management of that school," Dixon said. "Our school board needs to be on top of this.

"I mean, this is unreal. I wouldn't want to be a student at that school. It's unfair. How can anyone learn under those conditions?"

In the article yesterday, The Sun described how students swear at and threaten teachers, roam the hallways, fight in the cafeteria, gamble in classrooms, light fires in trash cans, and smoke marijuana and drink alcohol, among other things, according to teachers, students and parents.

There are few consequences for bad behavior, those interviewed said, and teaching and learning suffer.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, said yesterday that, if the conditions at Northern are that bad, the school system needs to act with a "greater sense of urgency."

"One of the worst things that can happen to a group of out-of-control [students] is to not have stability or structure," she said. "It sounds to me like this management team might be overmatched."

City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said the situation at Northern is "not acceptable," while Councilman Robert W. Curran called it "intolerable."

Mayor Martin O'Malley had no comment yesterday, but his spokesman, Tony White, said representatives from several city agencies - including the departments of police, recreation and parks and social services, as well as the office of children, youth and families - will meet this afternoon with the principal and staff about strategies for improving conditions in and around the school.

The meeting has been planned for several weeks.

School board member J. Tyson Tildon said Northern, which has a history of problems, improved under the leadership of former Principal Helena Nobles-Jones. She was recruited in 1998 and left in 2000 to head a Prince George's County high school.

"I have the sense that the school was on the mend and has slipped," he said. "Why that is, I don't know."

In an interview yesterday, Nobles-Jones said that children need clearly defined and consistent rules.

"They are challenging authority at home and in the streets. You've got to be up to the challenge or they will be the victors," she said.

Nobles-Jones said she was not afraid to suspend or expel students who became unruly. "Kids feel safe with boundaries," she said.

If students fought, they were sent home. If they missed too many days of school, they didn't get credit for their courses.

Nobles-Jones said she is saddened by the current situation. When she left, she said, the school's culture had improved and she believed that further gains were just in reach. "I know what was possible," she said.

Nobles-Jones said the city needs to make a greater commitment to improving the nine neighborhood high schools, which about 55 percent of children attend.

She said students often feel "doomed" when they don't have the grades to get into a citywide school such as Baltimore Polytechnic Institute or Dunbar.

`A functioning school'

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