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.
"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."
Markel Williams' body was found Friday near the entrance to ConneXions Community Leadership Academy, and part of the school was blocked off by police that afternoon. Classes were combined in rooms to avoid distracting views outside.
At the alternative school in the building for students with behavior problems, Principal Ara Shishmanian had spent much of the weekend talking with families about what happened, turning the usual Saturday detention session into a focus group. Because Shishmanian's students have all made bad decisions, he tried to use the stabbing as a learning experience.
"They already had gone down the road of a gang choice or a beef where verbal led to physical," he said. "They understood it was the wrong decision to make and there was going to be a consequence to it."
At Oxendine's bail review yesterday, the boy wore a white T-shirt and a jeans and stood in handcuffs in the last row of a small courtroom inside the Central Booking and Intake Center. Between him and Judge Devy P. Russell, several rows of handcuffed men awaited their own bail reviews. From the lobby, Oxendine's family watched a video feed of the proceeding. They refused to comment and hid their faces from television news cameras; the boy's attorney said they fear for their safety.
Assistant State's Attorney David C. Chiu asked the judge to deny bail to Oxendine because there was evidence of premeditation in the stabbing: He said that Oxendine had told others that he was looking for Markel Williams.
Patrick Todd Williams, the boy's lawyer, said his client turned himself in to police and has strong support from his mother and other relatives. He said Oxendine worked as a busboy at Sabatino's, a Little Italy restaurant, and has a stable home. He said Oxendine's mother learned her son had been skipping school as far back as Nov. 3 because he had been threatened by Markel Williams, and he was "totally terrified" of going to school. According to the lawyer, the mother had contacted the school several times, sought mediation and tried to get her child's safety concerns addressed.
"He literally felt he would be killed if he went to school," the attorney said. "I just ask everyone to reserve judgment. My client is a victim here, too. This is a good kid that was terrified."
Markel Williams had a reputation as a troubled child and was identified by police as a well-known juvenile offender. But his record shows he was arrested only twice and charges were dismissed both times: in 2005, for burglary and theft, and in 2006, for school disturbance. Last year, the boy was identified by the state as a "child in need of assistance." Under the care of the Department of Social Services, he had temporarily lived in a group home.
A Baltimore DSS official said Williams was not in foster care at the time of his death.
Lauren Abramson, executive director of the Community Conferencing Center, said families must work with schools to prevent violence.
"There is no litmus test for when is this going to escalate," said Abramson, whose group has worked with the city schools for the past decade. "It is so tough. We are asking our schools to fix it all, which I don't think is possible. It has to be a coordinated effort between parents, the community, businesses and the schools, all wrapping our arms around these kids and figuring out what we can do."
Sun reporters Liz Bowie, Justin Fenton and Melissa Harris contributed to this article.