Troubles at Walbrook bring action, promises

Students arrested in fires as school takes first steps toward order and security

October 04, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

As the smoke literally cleared over Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy last week - a week in which several fires were set in the school, fights broke out and, on Wednesday, someone fired a gun near students outside the building - reactions were swift and predictable.

There was a security crackdown, as police arrested three students for allegedly setting the fires and administrators tightened access to the West Baltimore school.

There was community outrage, as hundreds of students and parents crowded the school's auditorium Thursday to complain bitterly about poor safety and classroom conditions.

And there were promises - by city, school and law enforcement officials who pledged to work together to end the turmoil.

Experts on school violence say such immediate actions may be part of the solution to Walbrook's problems, but they also insisted that only a sustained effort can establish a lasting, peaceful environment.

"It takes a school that's going to be very open about what the challenges are, inviting the parents in and saying, `We're going to work together,'" said William Lassiter of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C.

The recipe for an orderly school is not a simple one, especially in an urban setting beset by crime and poverty.

But essential ingredients, experts say, are a firm and consistent method of student discipline; a secure campus; an effective and engaging academic program; and a community that feels welcome and invested.

Baltimore's challenge of trying to maintain order in large, unruly schools is not unique. Last week, police in Chester, Pa., broke up a large brawl in the city's only high school, with the help of pepper spray, and arrested 28 students.

"I don't think there's a large urban school district in this country that doesn't at one time or another have some type of violence issue going on," said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm.

Smaller schools

Two years ago, Baltimore began addressing discipline and academic problems at its large, neighborhood high schools by splitting them into smaller schools focused on a particular field of study, such as health or environmental sciences.

Nearly half of the city's neighborhood high schools - including Lake Clifton-Eastern, Northern and Southern - have been divided into smaller schools.

Walbrook, which had about 2,000 students last year, began its conversion this academic year with the opening of the 200-student Maritime Academy, housed in the basement of the building. About 1,290 students remain at Walbrook.

Leadership turnover

Tension arose last month when students returned to Walbrook from the summer break to find a turnover in leadership.

Gone was Andrey Bundley, the school's popular principal, who was suspended during the summer for allegedly allowing students to graduate or move to the next grade without meeting requirements. Bundley disputes the allegations and is fighting the system's effort to fire him.

In his place was Shirley A. Cathorne, the former principal of Southern High, and new administrators and guidance counselors.

Many students and some parents feel Bundley was unfairly targeted, and view Cathorne with suspicion.

"She came in wrong," said Wanda Newby, whose daughter is a senior at Walbrook. "[The new administrative team] came in downplaying [Bundley], and they shouldn't have because the children were still sensitive about what happened with him."

Further unsettling for some was that the new principal displayed a different style than Bundley, who walked the halls, talked to students and corralled youngsters off the streets and into the school.

Cathorne acknowledges she has been too preoccupied with administrative duties and parent concerns, and does not know her students as well as she would like to.

"I can only apologize for that," she said. "I'd like to be able to get to know each and every one."

The new principal said she understands that students are "grieving" over Bundley's removal.

"They're missing their former administrative team," Cathorne said. "That's something I've got to accept and I've got to work through."

The central administration plans to send extra staff members to help with administrative duties, to give Cathorne more time to get to know students.

Student involvement

Cathorne also plans to expand a principal's advisory board made up of students, which already has ideas for sprucing up bathrooms and monitoring hallways.

Involving students in caring for the school is something safety experts encourage.

"Much of the research on school violence says that connectedness is one of the best ways to prevent school violence," said Lassiter, of the violence-prevention center in Raleigh. "If students have the opportunity to be engaged in that environment ... they take ownership."

The central administration said it is working to resolve parent complaints that were aired at last week's town hall meeting, including crowded classrooms and a textbook shortage.

"We're not flying in, dropping some ideas and flying out," said Jeffery N. Grotsky, the school system's chief of staff. "This is a school with 1,200 kids that deserve a top-notch education."

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