Crime accusation upsets school

Police spokesman's disputed TV identification ties Digital Harbor teens to attack

January 17, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,sun reporter

Life may be like a box of crayons, as the saying goes, but city police spokesman Donny Moses has learned that it's good to get the colors right.

On Monday night Moses appeared on television and identified a band of students who assaulted a woman at the Inner Harbor last week as being from the Digital Harbor High School complex. He said police knew the perpetrators were from there because of the school uniforms they were wearing: burgundy shirts and khaki pants.

But there was a problem. Digital Harbor students wear navy shirts, not burgundy. And students at the National Academy Foundation High School, which is in the same building as Digital Harbor, wear royal blue or white. So yesterday, students railed that they had been unjustly accused, and city school system officials asked the Police Department for an apology.

Last night, Moses acknowledged that he got the colors wrong, but he did not offer an apology.

Moses conceded that the police report hadn't mentioned anything about the shirt color, but he thought he had remembered that Digital Harbor students wear burgundy. The report says only that the teens involved were wearing khaki pants, which students from both schools do.

"I understand they're trying to get out of it because I messed up with the color of the shirts," Moses said. "And that's fine, if you want to dodge responsibility."

Moses said he is virtually certain that the teens who assaulted the woman came from the Digital Harbor complex. "There's no other high school down there," he said. "These were students of high school age."

The city school system steadfastly maintains that there is no proof that the assailants came from the Digital Harbor complex.

"There's no indication that any Digital Harbor student was involved," said Vanessa Pyatt, a school system spokeswoman. She also said the accusation "has disturbed the student body greatly."

But Moses said he would be hard-pressed to believe that they could have come from anyplace else because of the large number of teens ("too many to count") and the time of the incident (about 4 p.m., 25 minutes after school lets out).

The accusation was especially tough to take at Digital Harbor, a showcase school that got media attention last fall after two incidents involving disorderly students. On the site of the former Southern High School, it occupies a new $42 million building and is one of Baltimore's most popular high schools, using a lottery to select students.

Digital Harbor has about 850 students. Seventy-five percent of them are black, and 70 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. The woman the students are accused of hitting is a white, 21-year-old Rockville resident who attends Bowdoin College, a liberal-arts school in Maine.

School officials said they would have no further comment until the Police Department identifies the students involved. But Moses said that because there were so many teens at the scene, it would be difficult to identify any individual suspects. The victim, Jonna McKone, declined to press charges, for fear of identifying the wrong suspect.

McKone told police she was walking near the water at Harborplace when a group of teens came up behind her, and someone punched her in the head. She tried to ignore them and keep walking, but she was hit again, falling to the ground.

The teens took her purse and, running away, threw it into the water. Trying to retrieve her possessions, McKone became dizzy and fell in, Moses said. A witness and a police officer pulled her out of the water, and a restaurant gave her soup and coffee.

Moses said officials had an initial discussion of banning Digital Harbor students from Harborplace, but they could not proceed because it is a public place.

Pyatt said Digital Harbor and National Academy Foundation held a joint assembly yesterday to calm upset students and remind them of proper behavior.

On Oct. 3, city police responded to a report about a beating that occurred less than a half-mile from Digital Harbor, which is at 1100 Covington St. Six days later, on Oct. 9, about 100 Digital Harbor students became disorderly as two 15-year-old girls fought each other at Cross and Light streets, according to city school police. During the fight, students smashed the windshield of a car parked near the intersection.

Since then, Pyatt said, "They've worked very hard to maintain a very civil, safe, orderly environment. There have not been any other incidents. They're working to rebuild their relationship with the community. They've made tremendous progress. They really don't need this kind of publicity."

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