In the danger zone

Recent incidents show ugly violence in Baltimore knows no bounds

April 27, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

There was something unsettling in the air last Monday at Unity United Methodist Church. It was disturbing for the Rev. Napoleon Rush, not because it was new but because he had seen it before.

A funeral was about to begin. Young men were walking in and out of church and up to the casket to express ... what? Condolences? Good riddance?

He asked them to behave appropriately. He asked them to respect the body that lay at the front of the church and the 300 assembled mourners. They ignored him. As always, he was prepared to speak about the defeating cycle of violence.

Outside, a few moments later, there were gunshots. Two people were wounded, one of them fatally.

An older woman in an elegant white hat stood quietly, her eyes glazed as if she had been dropped into a free-fire zone. The telltale yellow crime scene ribbon kept people back from the wounded. Though not hurt, she, too, was a victim. Where could she go to escape the shooting? Not even to church.

Welcome to Baltimore, where men of God, mourners and even the dead get no respect.

In the city's public schools as well, the atmosphere is rife with threat and danger. Jolita Berry, an art teacher, was beaten by one of her young female students at Reginald F. Lewis High School. A class full of other students stood by and watched. No one intervened. This behavior, too, was not new. Teachers all over the city say they have been threatened and assaulted.

One of the bystanders captured the melee on a cell phone camera. Later, these images went up on the Internet for the wider world to see.

Several weeks earlier, another such scene was on display, a city police officer angrily dealing with a skateboarder who ignored his orders to leave the Inner Harbor. The officer's rough response was widely condemned - and it should have been - but his reaction may be drawing more sympathy now.

While street killings in Baltimore have been surprisingly less frequent than last year, a cloud of violent crime seems to have fallen upon parts of the city once seemingly immune to such outbreaks. Good police work must be credited, but who doubts that more serious underlying causes must be addressed? Gangs are thought to be involved in some of these incidents, but there is also a more generalized flouting of law, community responsibility and concern for life.

Under schools CEO Andres Alonso, school officials have promised to confront the problem and offer teachers more protection. More than 200 teachers gathered last week to explain what they have seen in their classrooms and their schools.

Mr. Alonso and Philip J. Leaf, who studies violence at the Johns Hopkins Hospital's Bloomberg School of Public health, say they are preparing "alternative settings" for students who seem unwilling to refrain from assaulting their teachers. Mr. Leaf points out that addressing violence without examining the underlying causes is not likely to be effective.

Mr. Alonso wants an infusion of 500 volunteers into the schools. They will need training, of course. But the presence of 500 parents and other concerned adults is just the sort of community response the schools need. It would show that the people of Baltimore want to maintain the schools as an anchor of stability and hope for young people.

Of course, volunteerism will not be enough. More police intervention is needed, at the very least, though Mayor Sheila Dixon and Gov. Martin O'Malley will want to avoid an armed presence in the public schools. However, their most fundamental responsibility is public safety, so they may have no choice if the response to Mr. Alonso's call is insufficient.

Something may be needed to protect the churches of the city as well. Pastors will want a police presence when they face situations they know have the potential for disruption. Like Pastor Rush, many of them have seen this sort of disruption as they bury casualties of the drug war.

The teachers, too, made it clear this dire problem is not new. Two young educators at Frederick Douglass High School found themselves dealing with exactly this sort of behavior last year. Gunfire erupted at a football game. On their first day of school, the teachers found themselves running for cover, along with some of the gunmen and other students.

At the same time, these young teachers saw immediately that a majority of their students desperately wanted to learn. They turned up voluntarily at the end of school days for special study halls convened to compensate for the fact that not much teaching could go on during regular school hours. Fires were set, teachers were assaulted and school authorities apparently feared reporting such incidents. If they had, their school would have come under sharp scrutiny and been at risk of the label "persistently dangerous."

Those are words, of course, that increasingly describe much of the city.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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