"They cannot come back in a community where they were disrespectful, because it sends a bad message," Rock said.

Rose Backus-Hamm, wife of former Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, recalled a time when she was principal of Frederick Douglass High and did not report a girl's suspension to system headquarters because she wanted her to be able to come back to the school. The girl had assaulted a teacher after he wouldn't give her permission to go to the bathroom and stood at the door to block her.

"I said to the teacher: 'Tell me what you should have done.' He said, 'I should have let her go to the bathroom.'"

Rock said only one teacher has been assaulted in her more than four years as principal of Doris M. Johnson, part of the Lake Clifton complex. She gives new teachers training so they learn about the students they'll be working with and do role-playing exercises to practice conflict resolution.

This year, attempting to defuse a conflict between two rival gangs, Rock designated 22 students - not all of them high-performing and not all perceived as "good" kids - as "student ambassadors."

The students wear special shirts and commit to backing teachers up when tension starts brewing in a classroom, to deescalate the situation before it turns violent. At Reginald Lewis, the students in Berry's class cheered her attacker on, the teacher said.

Late last week, the school system sent a central office administrator to work alongside the principal at Lewis while the school is in the spotlight. Teachers who have worked at Lewis and Du Bois say the complex - once Northern High School - has long been chaotic.

"The kids ran the halls," said Tamara Gabai, who taught at Lewis from 2003 through 2006 and now works at Towson Catholic High School. "Twice, the glass in one of my classroom doors was broken during the school day. A kid ran by and punched his foot through the door while we were in the classroom."

Shelye Knotts, a former English teacher at Du Bois, and Cooperstein were among the staff members who filed a class-action union grievance in 2006 charging that Du Bois was an unsafe environment. After testifying at the grievance hearing, both women said, they were charged by their administrators with misconduct for minor, unrelated incidents.

"Teachers live in fear of administration," Cooperstein said. "And when the union tries to do something ... they only get a handful of teachers who are willing to stand up."

In May 2006, the women recalled, Knotts came to the aid of Cooperstein, who was confronting a girl who had intentionally locked herself in the library. The girl hit Knotts in the head, neck and upper back with an umbrella. Knotts said that she pressed criminal charges, but she recalled another incident when a boy knocked over a desk and an easel trying to hit her, and the only consequence was his transfer to another class.

After the assault with the umbrella, Knotts - who now teaches in Baltimore County - looked in the girl's discipline file.

"I saw that the student that assaulted me had assaulted eight previous staff members between middle school and our school," she said. "She was returned to Baltimore City schools every time."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com james.drew@baltsun.com
Tamara Gabai's position at Reginald Lewis High was misstated in the caption of a photo that appeared with this article in the print edition. The Sun regrets the error.