Distress voiced at Walbrook meeting

Parents, teachers, students take little comfort in officials' suggestions for boosting safety

15 fires set, gun fired on school grounds

October 01, 2004|By Laura Loh and Lynn Anderson | Laura Loh and Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

School, fire and police officials offered a dozen ways last night to make Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy a safer, less chaotic place, but an audience of parents, teachers and students hearing their plan at a town hall meeting demanded more.

"It's good to see all of you here tonight, but what is going to happen when you leave?" asked parent Sylvia Fitzgerald, 34, who was among about 700 people who nearly filled the school auditorium.

Baltimore schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland - who came to the event to talk about safety - seemed shocked at an outpouring of discontent by Fitzgerald and many other parents.

She and city officials, including Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark and Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., took notes and talked up steps they said should at least bring order to the school.

The meeting comes after a rash of disruptions at Walbrook. At least 15 fires have been set inside the school in recent weeks, and someone fired a gun in front of the school Wednesday as students filed out of the building for another fire.

No one has been hurt, but the incidents have enraged parents who said they are worried that their children are spending more time on the sidewalk because of fire alarms than inside learning.

"We had tried since school opened to put in place some safety measures," Copeland told the crowd. "When I visited [Walbrook] last Friday, students were engaged in learning. I thought we had made some progress. But over the past several days it's been clear that that is not the case."

Starting today, Copeland said, more city and school police will be assigned to the campus, along with the full-time presence of a firetruck and four-member crew. New front doors have been ordered for the school because the old ones are broken and do not lock properly, she said.

The school's uniform policy will be strictly enforced and student identification cards will be distributed in an attempt to keep out strangers, Copeland said. The school has received 15 two-way radios for use in securing hallways.

School officials will meet with students, teachers and other faculty members to get to the bottom of the problems, Copeland said, adding, "You know better than we do what will make this a safer school."

Parents and students cheered at times during Copeland's presentation, but when she opened the floor to public comment, the audience unleashed a flood of complaints - casting a wide net of blame that included Copeland and Walbrook's new principal, Shirley A. Cathorne.

"There are people who hadn't even seen you before today," said Inetta Ford, a Walbrook senior who criticized the principal for spending too much time in her office. "We should have seen you the first day of school and the second day of school."

Many parents complained that Walbrook was not doing enough to make sure their children were learning. They said that students are not allowed to take books home and that homework is rarely assigned. Some parents said their children's academic skills have slipped.

Marian Tisdale, 54, whose son is an 11th-grader at Walbrook, said the youth was without a permanent math teacher for six months last school year. "My son is college-bound, but he is not college-bound because of you all," Tisdale said. "He is college-bound because his mama taught him."

School chaos is not limited to Walbrook. At Thurgood Marshall High School on Wednesday, a brawl among female students was broken up by police using pepper spray. Several days ago, a fight at Southwestern High left one student seriously injured, school police said.

In past years, several large neighborhood high schools have erupted in violence. Administrators have confronted the problem by dividing large campuses into smaller schools. Walbrook, with 2,000 students, is in the first phase of its breakup.

The school day at Walbrook got off to a promising start yesterday: Students were calm and orderly, and Mayor Martin O'Malley paid a brief visit to offer Cathorne support. But later in the day, two more fires were set inside the building.

School safety expert William Lassiter told The Sun yesterday that officials should not only discipline wrongdoers, but look for causes of the problems - that some students could be lashing out because they are academically frustrated or need counseling or mental health services.

"There's ultimately a bigger problem there, and it's important that the school try to figure out what is the root of that problem," said Lassiter, of the Raleigh, N.C.-based Center for the Prevention of School Violence.

Some Walbrook students said yesterday morning that they aren't willing to wait. They plan to transfer as soon as they can. But others said the fires and gunfire didn't faze them.

"It's chaos. But we've got to come to school," said Brian Williams, 16, a junior. "Most of us are from violent neighborhoods, so we already know how it is."

Teira Swain, a 10th-grader, agreed: "It's not new."

Students said they don't have much confidence in Cathorne.

"She doesn't communicate with us," said Gynai Chester, a 10th-grader.

Several students said conditions at Walbrook were better under the former principal, Andrey Bundley. They said he had good rapport with students and was respected in the community, even by gang members.

Bundley has been suspended for allegedly permitting students to improperly graduate or move to the next grade. He is fighting an administration recommendation that he be fired.

"He may have made a mistake, but we still want him back," Swain said.

A few teenagers complained that the entire student body has been punished for the actions of a few troublemakers. For example, the school temporarily banned french fries from the lunch menu - a popular selection - as a punishment, and has sealed off most bathrooms.

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