Chronology of disorder and violence at Northern

January 12, 2002|By Gregory Kane

CARMEN Russo, the CEO of Baltimore public schools, mercifully and graciously allowed the media through the doors of Northern High School yesterday.

She arrived at the school's Distance Learning Center (in earlier, simpler, saner days, this would have been known as a library) shortly after 10 a.m., accompanied by Betty Donaldson, currently being punished for sins committed in a few dozen previous incarnations by serving as Northern's principal.

Yes, it's in the news again. Northern High School, site of the greatest mass expulsion in city, state, and heck, national history, for all we know, except for maybe mean Joe Clark, subject of the movie Lean on Me, starring Morgan Freeman. In November, 15-year-old Northern freshman Willis Reese was kicked and stomped into unconsciousness in front of the school. He sustained a skull fracture.

Subsequent news reports told of a school seemingly embroiled in chaos. Students fight, drink and smoke marijuana in the cafeteria. They cuss at teachers, hurl full cans of sodas through the halls and set small fires from time to time.

Sound familiar? Let's take a look at Northern's chronology of chaos.

January 1995: Elijah Jermaine Young, 22, is fatally shot outside the school. Walter Gerald Ferguson, is wounded. Neither was a student.

September 1995: Someone fires shots in the school's halls. Police recover gun casings. Soon, Northern students are walking through metal detectors. The school is the first in Baltimore to use the devices.

September 1996: A 16-year-old at the school is charged with raping a 14-year-old girl in the boys' restroom.

November 1997: Northern Principal Alice Morgan-Brown suspends 1,200 pupils, about two-thirds of the student body, when they refuse to return to homeroom class. Morgan-Brown, not the students, is criticized. She later retires.

January 1998: Fifty Northern students deemed the "most dangerous" get the boot.

February 1998. Probation officers are assigned to the school. The same month, 15-year-old Northern student Wayne Martin Rabb Jr. is fatally shot in a neighborhood miles away from Northern. A month before that, Rabb had been beaten with a baseball bat outside the school. The beating and shooting were the result of neighborhood disputes that had spilled over into the school.

September 1998: Two restroom fires force a one-hour evacuation of the school.

Then there was the Reese beating. Sun reporters Erika Niedowski and Liz Bowie wrote an article about the school this week that indicates little has changed since Morgan-Brown became the scapegoat for out-of-control students. The school improved a little when Helena Nobles-Jones took over in August 1998. Assaults dropped 43 percent during her tenure.

When Nobles-Jones left, some students believed it was back to business as it used to be at Northern. Niedowski and Bowie reported that students -- not all, we can assume, but just enough to disrupt the learning process -- are roaming the halls as they did in the old days, gambling, drinking, fighting and, in general, preparing themselves for a career pressing license plates.

Russo responded by having the media banned from Northern and announcing yesterday's news conference. Reporters were then led on a proverbial "gilded tour" of the school, after which we were all supposed to return to our computers and TV editing rooms to tell all of you that things are now hunky-dory at Northern.

Russo was asked if banning the media was a good idea.

"We do not open up our schools for anyone to go and come at will," she answered. "I wanted to wait for the school to stabilize. They [Sun reporters Niedowski and Bowie] knew my rationale was we needed to stabilize the schools." Russo said she was in touch with reporters daily and "there was no blockage of information."

But there certainly was. With Russo as the only source of information, we got only her take on the troubles at Northern. Any parents, students or teachers whose views were different from Russo's were essentially censored. The media didn't hear until yesterday, for example, the accusations of one parent who said a lesbian clique sexually harasses straight girls in the restrooms.

"I think the school should have given the opportunity for the media to come in," 3rd District City Councilman Kenneth Harris said at Northern yesterday. "[Media] access shouldn't have been an issue. A couple of parents called me and said they felt the school system had something to hide."

Russo may genuinely believe she was waiting for the situation to "stabilize." But the perception among many now is that the school system had something to hide.

That's why it might not be a good idea to ban the media from taxpayer-supported institutions. And gilded tours only add to the perception that school officials may be trying to pull a fast one on us.

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