A world where bad choices might kill you

This Just In...

March 27, 2002|By DAN RODRICKS

EIGHTH-GRADE girls from William H. Lemmel Middle School took a bus to Annapolis a few weeks ago to testify in support of a school-safety bill they had helped draft. The state delegate, Lisa Gladden, introduced the bill for them in the General Assembly.

The girls had the Columbine nightmare and other school shootings in mind, and they weren't necessarily commenting on conditions at Lemmel, one of 21 city schools that received a nice cash award from the state last year for significant improvements in test scores.

Given that it would have required about $6 million to pay for posting police officers and installing metal detectors at every city school, the bill had little chance of passage.

But as an exercise in understanding the legislative process, the experience was a great one for the kids.

As an exercise in understanding what kids worry about, it wasn't bad for adults, either.

You can't miss the idea of kids wanting their schools to be sanctuaries from the dangers that hang on the corners of their neighborhoods. That's what I take from the little civics lesson at Lemmel - kids wanting to be safe, kids wanting to live.

So we woke up yesterday to this news: a boy who attended Lemmel dead from a gunshot wound Monday night in West Baltimore, many long blocks from his school, in a stretch of vacant homes constituting one of the bleakest swaths of the city.

"What awful news," Gladden, the delegate, said upon hearing of the death of 15-year-old Dana Mayers. "It is ironic that although my kids wanted to create a safe place to learn, they still can't get a safe place to live."

Too many guns. Too many drugs. Too many men with guns warring over drugs.

Too many young men making bad choices and putting themselves in danger, which was likely the undoing of Dana Mayers.

Western District officers found him, gunshot wound to the chest, in the 600 block of N. Carey Street at 10:15 p.m.

As I surveyed this street yesterday, noting the numerous young men hanging out there in the drizzly middle of the day and noting a spray-painted declaration of "War Time" on the plywood sheeting over rowhouse fronts, I thought about a death such as this at 15.

I have thanked God numerous times for my life, which has lasted three times as long as Dana Mayers' did.

But I have lived in a world totally apart from his.

I know of Dana Mayers only what detectives from the homicide unit passed along: that they found bags of marijuana next to his body, that they believe he was a seller of the weed, and that they were told Mayers' girlfriend, also 15, is pregnant with his child.

So you see why I assume Dana Mayers made bad choices, and that one of these choices put him in North Carey Street at 10 o'clock of a Baltimore night. Teen-agers are always making bad choices. But in Dana Mayers' world, a bad choice cost him his life.

"Is it really such a terrible thing if drug dealers are killing each other?" a businessman told me he asked Mayor Martin O'Malley recently. And while he didn't tell me the mayor's answer, I assume - more than hope - it went something like: Yes.

Yes, because all this violence, the steady drop of bodies on sidewalks, is the cancer that eats at Baltimore's core, and there ought to be outrage about it - not cynical sarcasm. The rates of other types of crime have fallen, but the brazen street shootings, the homicides - these are the crimes that do the greatest spiritual damage to a place. We're up above 50 killings for the year already.

There's a surreality about all this. It's not a part of the world most of us - even those of us who live in the city - know firsthand. It is the great confounding paradox of Baltimore - on one block, life and future; on the next, death and dead ends.

I thought of 10 o'clock Monday night, the hour of the Mayers shooting.

Where were you? I had just arrived home after spending a pleasant couple of hours at a pre-Passover Seder held in a Catholic school hall in Little Italy. It was a peaceful and meaningful occasion - Catholics and Jews gathered to recount the history of an enslaved people's exodus from Egypt, honoring the past, toasting the future.

On the other side of town, Dana Mayers was making his way to Carey Street, trapped in that life that ended in a way that left no one surprised and too few outraged.

The police commissioner, Ed Norris, was correct yesterday when he said, "We've got to get to these kids so much earlier. It's too late. A 15-year-old comes to my attention - it's too late.

"People keep looking to the police for answers. But the problems are staggering. Why are teen-agers out there at 10 o'clock at night and much later? Why and how do these teen-agers get their hands on semiautomatic weapons? We've got a 15-year-old shot in the chest. ... Where is the outrage?"

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