City Hall workers help monitor halls at Walbrook High

Another fire breaks out despite employees' efforts

October 05, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Another fire broke out yesterday at Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy even as City Hall, in a sign of its growing involvement in Baltimore public schools, sent about 75 of its employees to work as hall monitors at the troubled West Baltimore school.

The city employees began work yesterday at the school, where at least 16 fires have been set and one gun fired since the school year began. Despite their presence, the school was evacuated during a small fire that officials said posed no threat to students and staff.

The workers will remain on campus for several weeks, until they can be replaced with parents and other volunteers, officials said.

"This is a very big issue, and it's bigger than the school system can do on its own," said Jeffery N. Grotsky, the school system's chief of staff. "We're reaching out. We're asking for help, and we're grateful for it."

Tensions have been mounting at Walbrook since last month, when students returned from the summer break to find their popular principal, Andrey Bundley, replaced with Shirley A. Cathorne, the former principal of Southern High.

The problems escalated last week at the school, which has 1,290 students, plus 200 enrolled in the Maritime Academy in the building's basement. Fights broke out, several fires were set and, as students were leaving the building to escape one of them, someone fired a gun outside. No one was injured in any of the incidents.

City Hall stepped up police patrols and stationed a firetruck outside the building.

However, there were other forms of assistance also. Along with the hall monitors, the city sent over a crew from the Department of Public Works to help repair or replace old doors that don't lock properly.

The help comes as Mayor Martin O'Malley has sought to play a larger role in city schools for reasons that various observers chalk up to his good-government bent, political ambition or both.

Baltimore mayors had not been personally involved in running city schools since 1997, when a city-state partnership was formed to oversee the financially strapped system.

That began to change in March, when O'Malley abruptly scrapped a proposed $42 million state loan for the schools and offered a city bailout. The deal gave O'Malley more say over city schools while preventing his political rival, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., from gaining more control.

Since then, City Hall has worked more closely with North Avenue on everything from resolving the system's $58 million deficit to painting classrooms this summer.

The hall monitors are another part of that effort, said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, adding that City Hall can spare them for a few weeks.

"Of course, we're happy to step in and offer whatever assistance we can to bring some normalcy back to the day-to-day operations and make sure kids have the best learning environment possible," Guillory said.

The hall monitors are normally assigned to city departments and offices, including recreation and parks, housing and neighborhoods. They were given some simple training before being stationed in the hallways, Grotsky said.

"A lot of folks who would come in may not have dealt with teenagers," Grotsky said. "Don't push them. Don't get in their face. Simple rules they should not break. Common-sense things."

The school system hopes to replace them in a two or three weeks with parents and other volunteers from the community, he said. But before that can happen, the volunteers will have to be fingerprinted, pass background checks and receive photo identifications, he said.

Until the volunteers are in place, the city workers will help keep the school safe, Grotsky said.

"We realized we needed additional help in the hallways," he said. "It's a big school. There's a lot of dead spots. And so we needed some people to watch what was going on."

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