`Do I feel safe in the school? No.'

Special Report / City Schools Violence

November 21, 2004|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

It's more than a quarter of the way through Alicia Lee's junior year in high school, and she's trying to stay focused.

Her dream of becoming a teacher is riding as much on controlling her fears as on her ability to conquer a heavy course load of physics, biology and accounting.

Because of a string of violent incidents at Baltimore City public schools since the beginning of this academic year - shootings, fires in classrooms, fights broken up by school officers firing pepper spray into combatants' faces - students such as Alicia worry that they might find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Do I feel safe in the school? No," says Alicia, an 11th-grader at Reginald F. Lewis High School of Business and Law. "Anything can happen."

Not all Baltimore schools record violence every day. But across the system, such incidents are becoming more frequent than just a year ago. Mayor Martin O'Malley conceded in a private e-mail to his police commissioner this fall that schools are "out of control."

Parents, school officials and experts blame the violence on the dilapidated condition of city school buildings, as well as recent budget cuts to staff, resources and security personnel.

The latest statistics for this academic year show that the number of serious incidents reported at all city schools during the months of September and October rose 40 percent over the same period last year.

Topping the list were fires and false alarms, which more than tripled from 21 in fall last year to 68 this year. Assaults jumped almost 23 percent, from 127 incidents last year to 156 this year.

It's all making the already troubled facilities - where water fountains are draped with plastic and guarded with "Do Not Drink" signs, and where on some days heat and electricity are almost luxuries - even more unsettling.

"We know that deteriorating school conditions are linked with more violent activity in schools," said William Lassiter of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, in Raleigh, N.C.

After problems arose at her daughter's school last month, Crystal Wilson - Alicia's mother and the vice president of the Reginald F. Lewis PTSA - complained to the city school board about almost a dozen problems with resources and conditions at the school that she found "unacceptable and potentially dangerous."

"Throughout the building you will find exposed wiring, missing and broken windows, doors that do not lock and/or are missing handles, non-functioning security cameras and monitors, as well as a host of other related problems," she said.

Reginald Lewis is among the 20 schools with the highest number of serious incidents this year. It is one of two high schools created two years ago from the old Northern High. The other, W.E.B. Dubois, is separated from its sister school by locked gates and walls.

Together the schools have 1,500 students. About 650 attend Reginald Lewis, where Alicia, 16, is enrolled.

Long school day

Alicia's school day begins at 8:30 each morning at her bus stop and ends at 6:30 p.m. after night school ("Twilight," as it is called). The evening classes are the only way she can complete some of her academic schedule because several courses during the day - including math classes - have been canceled for lack of teachers.

She catches a city bus just outside her townhouse complex in Northeast Baltimore along with several other students. Every seat is quickly filled, and those who stand form a tight group in the aisle.

Despite the close quarters on the roughly 15-minute ride from Alicia's bus stop to school, the students remain calm, with their voices at almost a whisper - except for occasional language that Maryland Transit Administration bus driver Dracy Davis doesn't want to hear.

"B--!" a boy shouts out en route to Reginald Lewis on a chilly Thursday morning.

"Yo!" Davis replies. "Cool it with that language, dog."

Voices return to almost a whisper as the bus winds its way to Reginald Lewis.

Davis, an eight-year MTA bus driver, has driven city students to school for the past two years. He says he keeps his bus under control through constant interaction with students:

"The reason my bus is the way it is, is because I speak to them every day. Usually it's pretty calm. I think it depends on how you relate to the kids."

But there's always a quiet tension that keeps Alicia on guard and often to herself, on the bus and in school.

"I just know that it can break out anytime," she says of troubles at the school. "I know a fire can be set at anytime. Then I cannot get done what I need to get done."

School officials sent students and teachers at Reginald Lewis home early twice last month after arsons Oct. 20 and 21.

The incidents angered faculty trying to teach and students hoping to learn.

Yet the Reginald Lewis fires produced barely a ripple among city school system administrators - for they were far less serious than what was going on elsewhere.

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