Victims' classmates struggle to understand

Tears, fears push aside reading and arithmetic

Deaths of three pupils overshadow a school day

May 29, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

It was a day that could haunt the dreams of 700 children for years to come, but Matthew Riley did his best to make it all seem normal.

Less than 24 hours after three of their schoolmates had been found slain in a nearby apartment building, pupils at Cross Country Elementary School gathered under a sunny sky behind the red brick building at 8:40 a.m. to hear their burly principal welcome them to just another school day.

"My goodness, you are a thing of beauty," he shouted to the assembled pupils, formed up in neat rows under their eyes of their teachers. "Good morning, everyone."

"Good morning, Mr. Riley," replied a chorus of children's voices.

"Guess what, guys, I love you," Riley bellowed.

"I love you, Mr. Riley," the children replied.

"I know you are going to have a fabulous Friday," Riley said. "I know this is going to be a great day for you."

It was, in fact, almost certainly the worst day in the 50-year history of the Northwest Baltimore school - a day for mourning three classmates killed the day before in a manner that left children asking their parents what "decapitated" means.

But Riley said it was important to greet the children the way he does every other day when the weather permits.

"We try to do what we do every day. We want to have a normal school day - business as usual," he told reporters later. "We rely on established routines. Children come in on a daily basis, and they have certain routines."

But a normal school day at Cross Country does not bring grief counselors scrambling from all around the city. A normal day does not see teachers arriving in tears. A normal day does not bring visits from the head of the school system or the mayor of Baltimore to try to explain why their friends Ricardo and Alexis and the little girl named Lucero would not be in school ever again.

For Cross Country's teachers and staff, it was a day of tears and anger.

Elyse Kahn, a third-grade teacher, arrived at 7:45 a.m., even though she was scheduled to have the day off.

"Oh, my God, these are babies; these are babies that we teach every day. Who would do this to babies?" she said.

Bonnie S. Copeland, chief executive of the city school system, appeared shortly after 8:15 a.m., visibly upset. She had received a call Thursday night telling her that three children had been killed in the 7000 block of Park Heights Ave. - all with their necks partly or fully severed.

Police identified them as Alexis Espejo Quesada, a 10-year-old boy; Lucero Quesada, a 9-year-old girl; and Ricardo A. Espinoza, a 9-year-old boy. The boys had been in the fourth grade, school officials said; the girl was in the third.

"I just can't understand how this can happen to our children," Copeland said before going inside to talk with Riley and his staff to plan the day.

Juanita Roseborough, mother of second- and fourth-grade boys at the school, said that when she heard the news of the slayings Thursday, she suspected the children attended Cross Country. As she arrived at the school and recognized Copeland, her fears were confirmed.

"When I pulled up this morning, the atmosphere was different here," she said, saying that the children seemed more subdued. "If you were here every day, you would know."

Roseborough said she was afraid her kids were in for a "rough day," but she expressed confidence that with the help of school psychologists they would be OK. "I want to be in there with them, but I have to work," she said.

Linda Harvey, parent of a fourth-grader, said that when she pulled up and saw camera crews in front of the school, she nearly turned around and took her daughter home.

But she decided that children needed the help of professionals to get through something so traumatic: "They should be able to talk about their emotions and experiences. It's part of the grief process."

Edie House, a school system spokeswoman, said feelings ran high in the school: "There were some who had played with the kids just before. They were in tears. Everyone was trying to console each other."

Mayor Martin O'Malley visited at 11:30 a.m. His first stop was in a computer lab, where he sat on the floor surrounded by about 30 of Lucero's classmates.

In the corridor, where some "BELIEVE" signs could be seen at entrances to classrooms, he hugged Tasha Gardner, Lucero's teacher. "I am so sorry," he said.

The mayor told the children, "One of the toughest things we deal in life, guys, are senseless acts of other people. You just can't make sense of madness."

One little girl asked the mayor why it was that Lucero had died in such a way.

"I wish I could come and give you some answers. But I can't do that," O'Malley said. "I need all of you to be strong and be strong for each other. Don't be afraid to talk about this, and don't be afraid of crying."

Copeland said she talked with two children who had written a song with Lucero.

"They were singing and teaching me the words," she said.

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