School officials say staff cuts contribute to outbreak of fires

Security guards and aides eliminated to save money

October 21, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school officials said that staff cutbacks might be contributing to a rash of fires at city schools this year, including six more small blazes at five buildings yesterday.

Since the opening of school in September, the city Fire Department has responded to at least 42 fires or false alarms at 14 schools. In some cases, violence has erupted as students were evacuated from the buildings.

School system CEO Bonnie S. Copeland has scheduled a meeting with the school board today to discuss rearranging the system's spending priorities in order to hire more school staff.

Copeland said that cost-cutting resulting from last year's financial emergency, when the system faced a $58 million deficit, might have left some schools without sufficient staffing.

"We're looking at other places where we might save money ... and invest in non-instructional aides" and other workers, Copeland said in an interview.

Yesterday's six fires were set at Highlandtown Middle School in East Baltimore, Reginald F. Lewis and W.E.B. Dubois high schools in the northeast, and Northwestern and Forest Park high schools in the northwest, according to the Fire Department.

A 15-year-old girl was arrested at Northwestern in connection with a fire in the girls' locker room, a school spokeswoman said.

"It's an unsafe environment right now," said Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, during a phone interview from Highlandtown Middle, where fires were set on successive days this week and police broke up a brawl Tuesday with a Mace-like gas.

"They lost [several] security guards," English said of Highlandtown. "There's no one in the stairwells. They've gone from what they considered a safe school to a school where they have to lock their [classroom] doors and stay inside."

Problem spreading

Earlier in the academic year, problems were concentrated at Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy in West Baltimore where, after one evacuation, a gunshot rang out as students milled outside the school.

Four students have been arrested in connection with the fires there, and city workers, extra school administrators and a fire truck were assigned to the school.

Lately, the fire problems have spread to more schools, and police ended large fights at two middle schools by spraying students with Mace or similar substances.

Additional school staff and fire trucks have been stationed at two other problem schools, Forest Park High and the Thurgood Marshall complex.

Copycats at work

Fire officials said the epidemic of fire-starting has fed on itself.

"These kids are seeing themselves on TV at night," said division Chief Theodore Saunders, a city fire marshal. "Other kids are seeing that they're getting out of school for a few hours.

"What you're seeing is copycats."

Fires at schools are not unusual. Last school year, a total of 168 fires were set at 49 city schools, according to Mayor Martin O'Malley's office. Nearly half of the fires occurred at five large, neighborhood high schools - the kind that school officials have begun splitting into smaller, more manageable schools.

Still, this year's problems have attracted far more attention among students, parents and teachers, and the staff reductions are being blamed for the problems.

Michael Hamilton, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs, said parent advocates warned the school board to think carefully before making staff cuts last winter.

"I have heard of class sizes of up to 45," Hamilton said, adding that such classes are more difficult to control and could lead to more discipline problems.

This year, Hamilton said, he has heard that some neighborhood high schools are short of assistant principals. There also are a number of teacher vacancies, particularly in middle- and high-school math, that have forced principals to hire substitutes or to form larger classes.

Angry at interruptions

Tamara Gabai, an English teacher at Reginald F. Lewis, said she was so angry about being sent home early yesterday because of a fire - the second this week - that she had to bite her tongue to avoid saying something inappropriate in front of students.

"The interruptions are frustrating," Gabai said. "When we have interruptions, somebody falls behind."

She said the fires also have been hard on students, most of whom don't want the school day disrupted.

"They know that the school is having problems, and they have no pride in their school because of this."

School officials vacillated yesterday about what to tell the public regarding the latest incidents.

They announced, then abruptly canceled, a 3 p.m. news conference to discuss plans to bring the fire-setting under control. The news conference was held two hours later.

"Let me make it clear that our first concern is the safety of our children," Copeland told reporters. "To have nuisance fires set by adolescents is unacceptable."

O'Malley, who has already lent dozens of city workers to help monitor schools, said the city will continue to give any assistance the schools chief requests.

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