School officials say help was offered to two teens involved in fatal stabbing

November 25, 2008|By Sara Neufeld and Gus Sentementes | Sara Neufeld and Gus Sentementes,sara.neufeld@baltsun.com and gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

In recent days, teachers and administrators at William H. Lemmel Middle School learned of a rift between two boys they thought were friends. They tried, unsuccessfully, to get their parents to come in for a conflict-resolution session.

And then on Friday, 15-year-old Markel Williams was found outside the West Baltimore building with fatal stab wounds to his upper body, the first killing on city school grounds during school hours since 2001. Timothy Oxendine, 14, is charged with first-degree murder. He was denied bail yesterday.

City schools chief Andres Alonso said the school "was really working with these kids." In the two weeks leading up to the stabbing, teachers and administrators paid home visits to both boys. Williams had been suspended for pulling the fire alarm, and staff was recommending that he transfer to an alternative program. The staff was concerned about Oxendine because he wasn't showing up to his classes.

FOR THE RECORD - Several articles and headlines about the Nov. 21 stabbing death of Markel Williams, a 15-year-old student at William H. Lemmel Middle School, did not provide sufficient context about the history of violence in Baltimore schools. On Jan. 17, 2001, just before school began, Juan Matthews was fatally shot near the entrance of Lake Clifton-Eastern High School. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

"It is a tragedy," the principal, Quianna Cooke, said yesterday as classes resumed. "Even the children today were saying they didn't know it was a beef; they were friends."

Williams and Oxendine had been invited to participate in a program that helps struggling students to get on track for college, Cooke said, but they declined. The principal was more successful in offering Williams a spot on the basketball team, an attempt to hold the interest of a boy who, in eighth grade, was two years behind his peers. His brother plays basketball for Baltimore City College.

"It was something he liked, and he was very good at it," Cooke said. "We wanted to give him something to hold on to." After the boy pulled the fire alarm, he was benched, but the principal decided not to kick him off the team.

Lemmel has long been known as a troubled school. In 2006, it was one of 11 in the city that state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick targeted for outside takeovers because of persistently low test scores, until the General Assembly blocked the move. Last spring, 40 percent of Lemmel's eighth-graders passed the state reading test; only 10 percent passed in math. In April, one student stabbed another with scissors, resulting in minor injuries.

But in recent months, officials have taken several steps to improve the school's climate. About 30 students who are older than their peers and have behavior problems were removed and sent to alternative schools. The steps have helped reduce suspensions to 14 so far this school year - 11 short-term and three long-term - compared with about 90 suspensions at this time last year.

Alonso has urged principals to suspend students for violent incidents but find other punishments for nonviolent behavior, and citywide, the number of suspensions is also rapidly declining. Baltimore schools reported 2,008 incidents of suspension through the first week of November this academic year, compared with 3,533 during the same period last year and 4,027 in 2006.

Lemmel has 17 programs aimed at improving student behavior, including a truancy court, a gang prevention program and counseling.

"I think Lemmel is doing their best," said Shantee Booth, 35, whose 12-year-old daughter is in seventh grade there. "There are kinks they need to work out."

Booth said she doesn't have reservations about sending her daughter to Lemmel "because I know the type of child she is and the type of friends she associates with."

Other parents said they are worried about the school environment. One grandfather said his grandson refused to carry a red notebook to school for fear of being associated with a gang. Shirley Henson, 76, said she has stood in the hallway and watched students cursing and hollering, and not long ago, she heard a teacher curse at a student. Of the stabbing, she said, "I wasn't surprised."

Henson had been letting her great-grandson take public transportation to and from school. Yesterday, the first day back after the stabbing, she dropped him off and picked him up.

Students at Lemmel and two other schools in the same building returned to find increased police presence around the campus and several mental health workers ready to meet with them. Alonso and school police chief Marshall "Toby" Goodwin were among the officials who visited for a meeting with Lemmel teachers. Last night, Mayor Sheila Dixon was scheduled to attend a meeting with parents.

Lemmel students had to empty their backpacks as they entered the school in the morning, and they were scanned with hand-held metal detectors - a practice that will continue this week. "I felt safe, but then again, I felt violated," said Booth's daughter, Sydea Gardner.

Last academic year, Alonso gave city schools the option of installing walk-through metal detectors, and 38 chose to do so. While Lemmel was not one of them, officials are reconsidering now.

Cooke said about 25 students met individually with counselors yesterday, and the counselors also visited all classes to conduct a lesson about "respect for life."

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