Author, ex-addict showing teens that hope is around the corner

They share anti-drug message at city academy

January 05, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Former homicide Detective Ed Burns was all too familiar with 14-year-olds, the same pivotal age as the high school freshmen he was addressing recently at the Baltimore Freedom Academy, a new city public school.

And even though these kids weren't necessarily facing the same kinds of troubles as the particular 14-year-old Burns had in mind -- former drug dealer and addict DeAndre McCullough -- he knew how easily the unthinkable could happen.

"When I first met DeAndre, he was 14 years old," Burns told the freshmen in the school's auditorium. "He was a cool kid. He was a great street fighter. He had a great sense of humor. And he was into a little marijuana. ... By the end of the year, he was sniffing heroin and cocaine.

"You're at the age where you're invincible," he went on. "You don't think it's going to happen to you."

But the hard truth is -- it can happen. Even at the Baltimore Freedom Academy, a school where the students wear uniforms, and teachers know all of them by name.

Story of triumph

That's why administrators at the academy thought it was important last month to have Burns, along with former addict Fran Boyd, share their first-person knowledge of the dangers of using drugs.

Boyd and her oldest son DeAndre were main characters in The Corner, an acclaimed book and subsequent HBO miniseries that explored the drug life on a beleaguered corner in West Baltimore. Burns was a co-author of the book with former Sun reporter David Simon.

DeAndre, who had recently finished a yearlong prison term, didn't attend the seminar because he had just started a new job, Boyd said.

"I have 100 teen-agers here. And I know for a fact that some of them have tried marijuana," Tisha Edwards, the school's principal, said to Boyd.

"If you had one opportunity to look a student in the face that you knew was on the path that you led, what would be the one thing that you would say to these young people?"

Boyd's response was unequivocal.

"If you tried it, don't try it again. I am living proof that marijuana will take you to another level," she said. "And after a while, the marijuana is not going to be enough. ... I never want to live that life again."

Burns was just as direct.

"The `corner' never loses," he warned them. "Anybody in here who thinks that they are going to beat the corner -- no one beats the corner. The best drug dealers fall or get killed. The addicts just get worse and worse."

Although life inside the Baltimore Freedom Academy looks nothing like life on the streets -- most of the academy's students have parents who are involved in their lives and come from relatively stable homes -- Edwards said she was surprised to learn that the street's influences creep into her school every day.

`Children are children'

During a training session over the summer, before the school opened its doors to 105 freshmen from around the city, Burns asked the school's staff to consider how they would prevent the "corner" kids from influencing the "stoop" kids -- those who see the drugs and crime, but don't get involved.

"When I originally heard that, I was offended and personally insulted because I didn't look at kids like that. I thought, `Children are children. They should not be stereotyped that way,'" Edwards said. "The reality of it is, there is a difference and I do have corner kids here. And those corner kids do have an influence."

Shavaughna Bowen, 14, knows that firsthand.

After the seminar, Shavaughna walked over to Burns as he was packing to leave and softly asked him how she could get one of her friends -- a Freedom Academy student -- to stop selling drugs.

"He's one of the smartest boys I know," she said sadly.

Burns told her the money that her friend is probably making makes him unable to see things clearly.

He told Shavaughna the most important thing was to not allow her friend to change her.

"Don't you get entangled in it because it's a vortex. It'll suck you right down," he said, as the tears welled up in Shavaughna's eyes. "You're too valuable to be tripped up."

Shavaughna took Burns' advice and autograph. "I'm going to keep it, and I'm going to show it to my kids and my grandchildren," she said.

Other Freedom Academy students, however, missed the important messages the school's staff had hoped they'd glean.

A handful of freshmen doodled on notepads, talked to friends or dozed off, as Boyd and Burns tried to save them with honesty.

"I see myself in them," said Boyd, who has been drug-free for six years and is an activist in Baltimore County focusing on drugs and HIV awareness.

"You look out there and you see the ones that's paying attention and you see the ones that's not paying attention. The one that wasn't paying attention -- that was me. And you just wish you could say something to get through to them."

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