Students, faculty fear a setback

Challenge for tomorrow is getting back on track

Randallstown School Shooting

May 09, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Bebe Martins doesn't know if she'll be able to bring herself to go to second period tomorrow.

Seeing the empty chair beside hers could be too much to bear.

Tomorrow, Randallstown High will open its doors to students traumatized by Friday's shooting outside the school. Officials say they will try to conduct as normal a day as possible.

But the day will be anything but normal for Bebe, a 17-year-old junior who is used to sitting next to William Thomas during her business law class and then seeing him again fourth period in African-American history. She is used to talking to him about such topics as the senior prom and his recent decision to attend Morgan State University in the fall.

William, a senior known as Tippa, was the most seriously wounded of the four boys shot. He remained in critical condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center last night.

Describing her reaction when she learned what happened to her friend, Bebe said, "I have never cried that much before ever. I couldn't believe how, in one minute, his whole life changed just like that."

The shootings came as an especially painful blow to Randallstown High, which has been working to improve its image as a violent school. The community's wounds grew even deeper with the news that one of the school's own students has been charged in the incident, which police said stemmed from a fight over a girl. Police believe none of the victims were intended targets.

In the first half of last school year, police were called to Randallstown more than to any other high school in Baltimore County. But the predominantly black, middle-class community had much hope that the school would improve under the leadership of Thomas Evans, who began last fall as the third principal in three years.

At 56, Evans came with 25 years of experience as a principal and a commitment to stay as long as necessary to bring about change. The school seemed to be making strides to rid itself of a reputation for violence.

Twenty-eight security cameras were installed inside and outside the school, said Aaron Plymouth, the PTA secretary and father of a sophomore. (The camera facing the parking lot, however, was not working Friday.) There was strict enforcement of the dress code and the ban on student cell phone use during the school day. Hall patrols were increased.

"Mr. Evans is trying so hard to make sure the school's image changes," said Bebe, William Thomas' friend. "And it was really working. The amount of fights this year was nothing compared with ninth and 10th grade."

Added Ella White Campbell, a Randallstown community activist: "I just hate to see something like this happen to tarnish the reputation of the school after it's made such a dramatic turnaround." As chairwoman of the school district's minority student advisory council, Campbell had pushed last year for new leadership at Randallstown High.

"The whole aura of the school has improved," Campbell said.

Late Friday afternoon, Evans was in his office packing up for the weekend when he heard students run inside screaming. Moments later, he found himself in a school entrance comforting 16-year-old Andre Mellerson, who had been shot in both shoulders.

That was nightmare enough, he said. Then he learned there were three others.

Now facing "the crisis after the crisis," the school has much work to do to get back on track, said Kenneth S. Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services.

"You need to make sure police and schools officials are working hand-in-hand, interviewing individuals, going back to make sure things are not going to escalate again," he said. "You have to get those students on the periphery, pull them in, talk to them, get parents involved, lay down the rules."

Trump said now would not be a good time to make changes in school safety procedures.

"You'll have a handful of parents calling for metal detectors, a whole lot of finger-pointing, and the community seeking demands that this will never happen again," he said. "That's an unrealistic expectation. ... It's the worst possible time to be making a knee-jerked decision."

Baltimore County school district administrators met for nearly two hours yesterday behind closed doors. School system spokesman Charles A. Herndon said they discussed everything from where to position television cameras to what to say in a letter to parents. He also said the school is prepared for a large number of absences.

Evans plans to begin the day with an early-morning staff meeting, followed by a statement to students over the school's closed-circuit television system, Herndon said.

Herndon said those who come into contact with students - from bus drivers to teachers to school secretaries - will be instructed on appropriate responses to their questions and concerns.

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