Protesting students say way blocked at school


A teacher and several students at Northwestern High School in Baltimore say chaos erupted at the school Wednesday as students tried to leave for a protest at the State Department of Education and found doors blocked by staff.

About 100 students got together and ran out the front door about 11 a.m., said Dan Kennedy, a 10th-grade English teacher, and several of his students, who wrote essays about the episode Thursday. The group assembled on the second floor of the school and ran downstairs, and "they just ambushed out," said Ashley Daniels, 16, a sophomore who was part of the crowd.

Principal Sharon Kanter initially denied the incident occurred. Later, school system spokeswoman Edie House said Kanter had told her that Northwestern staffers stood at school exits and explained to students that they would receive an unexcused absence if they left. But House said no students were prevented from leaving, and no exit doors were locked, as some of the students claimed.

Over the past three days, hundreds of students from around the city have skipped school to protest the proposed closure of several school buildings. The students gathered Wednesday outside the Maryland State Department of Education, on Thursday outside school system headquarters and yesterday outside City Hall, where five went in and met with Mayor Martin O'Malley.

In her essay for Kennedy's class, Daniels wrote that what happened at Northwestern "was a tragic thing."

The essay read:

"There was kids running up and down the halls trying to find a way out of the school. Security was everywhere trying to keep the kids in; the school had to lock most of the doors so children wouldn't leave out and everything. So most students were trapped and had to try to sneak out the front door where the security was mainly at. So all the kids who were trapped all came together and made a plan. They all were going to just bum rush out the front door all together. So one kid counted to three, next thing you know all it was, was a stampede of kids running out the front door."

Antonio Williams, chief of the city schools police, said the two police officers assigned to the school did not lock doors or stop students from leaving, but he added that he didn't know whether other school staff did.

Williams said he instructed officers at all city schools not to get in the way of students leaving at midday to go to the protests.

"We weren't going to hinder their ability to do a peaceful demonstration," he said. "The reality is, I didn't want anybody arrested or taken into custody. Quite frankly, the kids that are demonstrating are kids that normally attend school regularly."

Northwestern students interviewed said some students were legitimately trying to get to the protest, while others just wanted to get out of school.

"Some of the kids didn't want to come to school that day, so when they heard about the protest, they wanted to leave," Daniels said. "Some actually went to the protest."

Asked why students wanted to leave, she said, "I don't really think Northwestern is that challenging of a school. That's why kids don't really like it that much."

Seniors Aisha Dorsey and Christina Hall, both 18 and officers in Northwestern's student government, said they left without incident Wednesday before the confusion broke out. Both said they had notes from their parents permitting an early dismissal, and they had talked to their teachers in advance about making up lost work.

Dorsey, the student government president, said her peers should have brought notes from their parents, too. "You can't leave in a large mass, or they'll think it's a riot," she said.

But it was clear from some of the essays that not all the students understood that the protest - led by the Baltimore Algebra Project - was not officially sanctioned.

The Algebra Project, a student-run tutoring group, called the protests to demand that no schools be closed until all class sizes are cut to 20 students or fewer and all schools given art and music classes. The city school system has committed to reducing its operating space by 15 percent over the next three years because of declining enrollment, deteriorating buildings and state demands to operate more efficiently. The system has space for 125,000 students with 85,000 enrolled.

Sophomore Octavia Walker mistakenly thought the protest had been called by state school officials, who are in fact threatening to withhold construction money if some city schools aren't closed. She wrote in her essay: "I feel like students should be able to say what they feel about their school. ... It was a reason the state made this strike, they also felt like schools need something done to them. ... To improve this situation the[y] should just close school on the next `strike' so it will not cause students to get in trouble."

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