Baltimore school officials ask residents to help stem tide of arson and violence

October 22, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

An hour after a shooting outside a Baltimore high school left two teenagers wounded, school officials turned to residents for help yesterday in ending a wave of arson and violence that has swept city schools.

"We are almost in need of the help of everybody in the city of Baltimore," school board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch said at a news conference at the system's North Avenue headquarters.

Board members received word of the shooting at Thurgood Marshall High School as they held a closed-door meeting yesterday afternoon to develop an emergency plan to respond to the recent disturbances.

Yesterday's shooting was not the first this year. A gun was fired outside Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy during a fire evacuation last month, but no one was injured.

More than 40 fires have been set at 14 city schools since the start of the academic year, and police have used Mace or similar substances to break up brawls at two schools.

The most recent fire occurred yesterday in an empty classroom at Reginald F. Lewis High in North Baltimore. Principal Federico R. Adams extinguished it.

Yesterday, school officials said they have assigned 25 extra security guards to the Thurgood Marshall High and Middle schools complex, Highlandtown Middle School and Reginald F. Lewis and W.E.B. Dubois high schools - sites that they described as "high-need."

Officials plan to shorten lunch periods - when many fires have been set - and shift them to later in the day, to give fire starters a smaller window of opportunity.

"Long lunch periods just don't make a lot of sense," said Jeffery N. Grotsky, the system's chief of staff, adding that some students might be able to "earn the right" to take a brown bag lunch and leave school earlier under the altered lunch schedules.

Maxine Holmes, an official with the City Union of Baltimore, which represents the system's 70 police officers, was skeptical of the plan to staff schools with more security guards, who cannot arrest students.

Holmes said the system would be better off beefing up the school police department with the money it is spending on security contracts. The union says the school system needs about 113 officers to be fully staffed.

The guards "have absolutely no powers at all," Holmes said. "They can do absolutely nothing but tell the kids to move along."

Grotsky said the presence of security guards has helped other schools.

"They've been very successful," he said. "They're able to tell the kids, `Take your hat off,' `Clear the halls,' those kinds of things. Their presence at Lake Clifton [Eastern] and Southwestern [high schools] last year was very valuable."

But Grotsky said adding security guards is only a temporary fix.

School officials acknowledged this week that they might have miscalculated the number of support staff they could afford to eliminate as the system tried to shrink its payroll in the face of a $58 million deficit. Last winter, hall monitors, noninstructional aides and school police officers were among the hundreds of employees who were fired.

City schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland said she intends to propose changes to the system's spending plan at the school board meeting Tuesday. The budget amendments probably will include cutbacks in certain departments to enable the rehiring of nonteaching school staff, she said.

Through the redeployment of resources and personnel, school officials said they're confident they can get a handle on the disruptions in schools. In past weeks, dozens of city workers and additional school personnel have helped monitor Walbrook High, where the fires initially were concentrated, and problems there appear to have died down, officials said.

But officials said they cannot stop violence that spills into schools from surrounding communities without the assistance of parents, business owners, churches and fraternal organizations. They asked for help ranging from parent volunteers who can field calls in school offices to businesses that can donate cell phones to help principals communicate better during crises.

"We implore you to come to the table," board member Brian D. Morris said into television cameras at the news conference. "The issues we are facing are not school issues solely."

Copeland asked the public not to paint all students in city schools with the same brush.

"Although we are deeply saddened by the news we have just received" about the shooting, she said, "we also want to share that 89,000 of our students ... are stellar individuals. Unfortunately, we don't always hear about them. We hear about the 10 or 20 who are setting these fires."

In addition to yesterday's shooting outside Thurgood Marshall High School in East Baltimore, a fire was started about 2 p.m. in a classroom at Reginald F. Lewis High. The principal said he received a tip that a fire would be set in a second-floor classroom. Adams rushed into the empty room with a fire extinguisher and found a wooden closet ablaze.

The fire led to the early dismissal of both Reginald F. Lewis and W.E.B. Dubois, which are located in the former Northern High School.

The Police Department's arson squad is investigating, said Fire Department Battalion Chief Kenneth A. Haag, who estimated the damage at "a couple thousand dollars."

Sun staff writer Scott Calvert contributed to this article.

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