On chaotic day in city school, shot sounds as students flee fire

Some parents to transfer teens out of Walbrook

September 30, 2004|By Lynn Anderson, Liz Bowie and Allison Klein | Lynn Anderson, Liz Bowie and Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

A gun was fired outside Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy yesterday as students fled a fire inside - a chaotic scene that frightened teenagers and enraged parents and teachers, who say some Baltimore schools are out of control.

No one was injured by the single shot fired at the West Baltimore high school - yesterday's most dramatic incident of school violence. But on the other side of town earlier in the day, at Thurgood Marshall High School, two fights broke out, and police used pepper spray to end the melee.

School officials rushed to defend classroom safety, insisting that yesterday's incidents - while troubling - are not part of a larger trend of violence across the city's 186 schools.

"I don't put any real significance on today," said Baltimore School Police Chief Paul Benson. "It is a bad day; we will deal with it and move on. ... I don't think we have any problem that is reeling out of control."

Nevertheless, Walbrook's principal acknowledged yesterday that there have been so many fires in stairways, bathrooms and trash cans in the first month of classes that she has lost count.

Benson said his officers are developing a plan to stem the violence and disruptions at Walbrook. "Clearly, other students have an absolute right to get an education," he said.

Parent Terri Manning, 30, said she will request a transfer for her son, freshman Deontae Warren, who was attacked by other students in the melee that followed the shooting incident at Walbrook - a school that at one time trained students interested in fire and police careers.

"This is too much," said Manning, an emergency medical technician, as she inspected her son's bloody hand. "It's always about fires and guns here. I don't want anything to happen to my son."

School officials will meet today to discuss the Walbrook situation, said spokeswoman Edie House. And a back-to-school meeting planned for tonight at Walbrook will focus on student safety.

In addition to the incidents at Walbrook and Thurgood Marshall, a student was seriously injured during a fight several days ago at Southwestern High School, Benson said.

Every year, it seems, there are one or two large neighborhood high schools that erupt in violence - most recently, Northern High and Lake Clifton/Eastern High. Administrators have tried to tackle the problem by breaking up large campuses; Northern and Lake Clifton were split up in 2002 and 2003.

One of the new schools created last year was the high school at Thurgood Marshall, which has only 500 students.

Though school police have tried to address the violence, they're hampered by budget restraints and resignations that have depleted the force, Benson said. He expects to add six officers soon.

And 25 security guards were hired for this month to work in schools troubled last year.

"Actually, we have been praising ourselves saying that it was a quiet start," Benson said. The lull was shattered yesterday.

Three fires were set at Walbrook between 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., said Principal Shirley Ann Cathorne, something that has been happening repeatedly at the school this year.

Asked for a tally, Cathorne said, "We have to sit down and count. It's been excessive."

As fire alarms screeched for the third blaze, students and faculty were forced to make a terrifying choice: stay inside the building, which was just ordered evacuated, or go outside where a gunshot had just sounded.

"It's hard to know what to do when there's a fire indoors and a shooting outdoors," said a teacher, who declined to give her name because she said she was told not to speak to the media or risk losing her job.

Nobody was hit by the gunshot. House said the fight arose from an argument between a boy and a girl that escalated when others joined in. School police took one student into custody, who they say was with the shooter. Detectives are still seeking the gunman, said school police Lt. Richard Damon.

Cathorne said that in an effort to stop the fires, students have been told they may use only monitored bathrooms on the building's first floor.

Starting today, she said, she will enforce the school's uniform policy and ask parents not to send their children to school with cell phones: "We're asking the community for help."

But some parents said it is too late. They said they will pull their children out of the school - immediately.

"I thought my daughter should go to this school," said Norris Ramsey, 61, of Forest Park, whose daughter, Evelyn Styles, is a Walbrook senior. "But now I am going to transfer her somewhere else. Her health and safety is more important."

Many Walbrook students and parents blamed the fires and violence in part on the school's leadership change. Cathorne took over this year for Andrey Bundley, who is suspended over an alleged student records scandal. City school officials have recommended he be fired.

"Dr. Bundley understood us," said Candance Walker, 16, a junior at Walbrook. "Some of the students here have problems and Dr. Bundley knew how to handle them."

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