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Men who've walked the road

BUILD middle school program places role models in school halls, and in youths' lives

December 10, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Every day at lunch, a dozen or so students gather in Room 109 for a group discussion. On Monday, Sutton led the talk, with an audience of eighth-graders munching on chicken nuggets and pizza. He posed a question: "How long can you look at another black man? Two seconds? Ten seconds? What's the longest you can look at him without causing a beef?" He asked the kids to role-play situations where eye contact could escalate into a fight.

The kids acted out how to place an order in a sub shop without angering a group that controls the site. "What if the group is armed?" Sutton asked. The students laughed and jumped around in mock pain as they acted out a gunfight. Sutton quieted them down with this: "This is serious to me. I watched my best friend get gunned down on Preston and Bond. I had to hold his brains in until the paramedics arrived. I've been to enough funerals. I don't want to go to anyone's in here."

The boys, more subdued now, prepared for their afternoon classes. Bobby Harper arrived to help them navigate their way. As the hallways fill between periods, the men are there, high-fiving students, pulling boys apart, quieting riotous girls.

"I feel like a trouble-shooter sometimes," says Harper, 51. "But that's OK. Wherever I'm needed." Above him was a city school police sign: "No weapons of any kind by order of BCPSS."

Harper announced, to no one in particular: "Let's clear the hallways. Keep moving, keep moving. Let's go."

Moments later, after class began, a language arts teacher popped into the hallway. "Bobby, can you help me remove a student from my classroom?" It was an eighth-grader, one of the target students, a boy prone to flashing gang signs.

After turning the student over to Sutton for a time-out in Room 109, Harper says the boy has been difficult to reach. "He's just so caught up in the streets. He's trying, but it's like there are two people on his shoulders. Once he leaves school, he has a whole 'nother world he is into."

Harper grew up in Murphy Homes, so he says he knows the temptation of gang life. But he had his own mentor, a man who taught him to play basketball. Harper coaches children and says he lives by the mantra, "Through sports, you can get a kid's attention."

The youngest Garrison mentor, Shawn Waller, 28, also is a coach. He lives in Park Heights and coaches football and basketball at Forest Park High School. Toward the end of the day, Kensey King, 14, arrived at Room 109 to work on reading skills. Waller made him a cup of tea. The two are close, and on this afternoon, Kensey wanted to join Waller at Forest Park.

School let out at 2:30 p.m., and the three men were ready. (Bryant Claibourne, the fourth Garrison team member, was at training on Monday.)

Harper, who also organizes the school's evening program, would stay three more hours to teach kids how to cook, play music and shoot hoops. Waller and Kensey were off to Forest Park. Sutton stood outside in the cold, directing students in the manner of an air traffic controller. Down the street, three police officers sat in their cars, ready to break up any trouble.

But on this day, there was none.

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