Baltimore police dispatch officers to head off racial tensions at schools

Officials, civil rights leaders pledge to unite the black, Hispanic communities

  • Left to right, praying at the end of a press conference: Jose Dominguez, Edwin Vasquez, Yanderi Hernandez. Representatives from hispanic and African American communities held a press conference at CASA de Maryland regarding ideas to prevent violence between the two communities.
Left to right, praying at the end of a press conference: Jose… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
June 02, 2014|By Justin George, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore police plan to deploy officers around city schools until the school year ends to ensure student safety amid recent racial tensions, while school officials joined civil rights leaders to urge students of different races to peacefully resolve differences.

The actions followed recent threats and violent attacks on Latino students as well as the Memorial Day robbery and murder of a 15-year-old Mexican student who had dropped out of high school to help his family.

Black and Hispanic leaders called for peace at a news conference Monday afternoon, before police deployed several officers to Federal Hill near Digital Harbor High School to deter groups of students from fighting in the streets.

"We demand and we ask for everyone to stop the violence going on in our city, especially in our schools," Missael Garcia, a board member of Casa de Maryland, a Latino advocacy group, said at a news conference Monday with members of the NAACP, National Urban League and other groups.

After-school program volunteers and directors at Casa de Maryland said assaults on two Hispanic high school students last week heightened fears that Latino youths were being targeted. They said only seven out of more than 100 Latino students showed up to Digital Harbor High School on Friday because they feared they would be attacked by black students.

Baltimore school officials said they plan to meet with Digital High students and their parents, including during a special meeting Tuesday night, to help curb tensions and violence.

"The Digital Harbor High School community, with support from the district, is working proactively with students, parents, police, and community partners to reinforce the expectation that students treat each other with respect and settle conflicts without resorting to fighting," said Tisha Edwards, the city schools' interim chief executive officer.

As classes let out Monday at Digital Harbor High, police converged on the surrounding neighborhood. Four officers stood at the Cross Street Market, while squad cars were posted on William Street and Riverside Avenue and near Key Highway. Another cluster of police cars were parked in front of the school's main entrance, and a police helicopter flew overhead.

Other officers drove alongside students, at one point using a loudspeaker to tell them to keep moving. No skirmishes broke out, authorities said.

Hispanic leaders say tensions increased May 26 when Oscar Torres, 15, was shot to death in the Union Square neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore at about 1 a.m. An older Hispanic friend of Torres was wounded in the incident, and the perpetrator remains at large, police said.

Police said the suspect is a black man who was seen riding in the car stolen after the men were shot, and who later crashed into another vehicle as he fled police, killing a 12-year-old.

Police believe the fatal shooting happened during a robbery and wasn't racially motivated. But Torres' death began to loom in the psyche of Hispanic students, especially as other events unfolded, Casa officials said.

On Wednesday, a student was knocked unconscious on Baltimore Street near Gay Street in an incident Baltimore police said school police are investigating. The next day, a 17-year-old Digital Harbor High School student was hospitalized after his face was cut by part of a belt near Baltimore and South streets. Both students were Hispanic, Casa officials said.

Two juveniles were arrested in the attack with the belt, Baltimore police spokeswoman Detective Sgt. Sarah Connolly said. She did not answer a question about whether the incident was racially motivated.

Although Casa officials and Latino students said Monday that African-Americans were responsible, police did not release the race of the suspects in either incident. School district officials didn't respond to inquiries about the assaults.

On Facebook, anonymous videos of Latinos being beaten along with general threats toward Hispanic students began to surface, said Yanderi Hernandez, a city high school student who participates in Casa programs. She and Casa officials said they saw some of the threats.

"They have been saying they're going to try and kill us and do this and that to boys," said Hernandez.

Latino students at Casa after-school programs were so upset by the attacks that the organization's lead organizer, Elizabeth Alex, invited police to speak to rebut rumors about the number of teens assaulted and help ease concerns.

"The kids were off the hook," Alex said. "They were angry, they were yelling, they were scared."

Jose Dominguez, a Digital Harbor senior, said "nothing was normal" and that it felt as though Hispanic students were being ignored and isolated by other students.

"You could feel it in the environment," he said. "That negative feeling that something bad was going on."

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