Every morning before school, Principal Camille Bell turns on the news and anxiously listens for word of deadly violence in Northeast Baltimore.
On Wednesday, she heard the news she dreaded. Four teenagers had been shot on a corner not far from the Montebello Elementary/Middle School she leads, and she learned that one of young students, a 12-year-old seventh-grader, had been struck in the chest.
The boy was clinging to life and was not expected to survive, police said Wednesday night.
"Every morning, I hope and pray that I don't see their pictures, that I don't hear any homicides, that I hear nothing about [the] Northeast community, because I know it's going to affect the school community in some way," Bell said. "We always pray that every day will be a good day, and nobody was prepared for this."
The principal spent the morning in the school cafeteria with a crisis team and the boy's classmates, trying to help them understand Tuesday night's shooting. The children were still hopeful he would recover.
The last time someone so young died in gun violence in Baltimore was in 2006, though two city school students have been killed in the past week.
Tuesday night's victim was identified by neighbors, law enforcement and school system sources as Sean Johnson.
He was described as an active but quiet pupil whose close-knit circle of friends consists mostly of advanced students. A relative of one of the victims said the boys were all friends from the Darley Park neighborhood and were watching an NBA playoff game on the front porch of a home in the 1700 block of Cliftview Ave., with a TV propped up in the window.
Police said that about 9:50 p.m., two males came around the corner, then returned and began shooting, leaving Sean sprawled on the pavement and scattering his wounded friends.
John Ward, 63, said he was in his East 25th Street home cooking when his 18-year-old grandson Brian Jackson burst through the front door yelling, "I'm hit! I'm hit!" He was bleeding from several spots around his body, the blood soaking through his white shirt. Two other friends, ages 15 and 19, were each struck in the buttock.
It's not clear what prompted the men to fire on the boys. Law enforcement sources said none of the victims had contacts as juveniles or adults with the criminal justice system. One of them has a scholarship to go to college, according to a neighbor.
"We need help," said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "We know there's some people in that block that perhaps know a little more than they've shared with police. I would hope that a 12-year-old boy clinging to life would be enough motivation to contact police. We want to put the people who did this behind bars."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called the shootings a "horrible and terrible tragedy." In an interview, she said, "Like the rest of the city, my thoughts and prayers are with the families of these boys. It was a miserable, miserable incident that didn't need to happen."
The mayor said the shootings mean "we have to redouble our efforts and work with the community to seek justice. … This should remind everyone that we aren't doing anyone a favor when we turn a blind eye to illegal guns. We owe it to these young boys to do everything we can to create a safer community."
Relatives of Sean Johnson declined to comment Wednesday night. Ward said he was a "typical 12-year-old," and neighbor Kim Johnson, whose granddaughter goes to school with him, said he was a "good kid."
Bell, the school principal, said that Sean has attended Montebello all but one year through seventh grade and has never been in her office for misbehavior. "He was a great kid, not a troublesome child at all," she said. "Always a very nice young man. He did not deserve this."
On Wednesday, Bell said, students talked about their feelings but did not grieve for their classmate because they still had hope that he would pull through.
"Just the fact that it happened is very shocking for them — just the fact that you could be a young person and get shot, brings things very much in perspective for the kids," Bell said. "I think that was the message that resonated with them today."
Fear and frustration pervaded the neighborhood Wednesday, with few residents willing to give their names. For much of the day, smeared blood remained on the sidewalk and police caution tape still hung. Evidence markers were left in the gutter.
Police have flooded neighborhoods in the area with extra officers in recent months, designating the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello and Belair-Edison neighborhoods as violent-crime zones and adding a deployment of plainclothes officers that brought positive results in recent weeks.
The quadruple shooting was one of two shootings in the area Tuesday night. About 9 p.m., a 26-year-old man was shot multiple times while walking in an alley in the 2600 block of Aisquith St., less than a half-mile from the shootings on Cliftview.