Jolita Berry

Jolita Berry, an art teacher at Reginald Lewis High School, recuperates at home in Charles Village after being assaulted by a female 10th grade student in school. (Sun photo by Amy Davis / April 9, 2008)

The trouble began, Jolita Berry said, when she asked a girl in one of her art classes at Reginald F. Lewis High School to sit down.

The student did not obey, coming closer to confront the teacher. "She said she's gonna bang me," Berry said. "I said, 'Back up, you're in my space. If you hit me, I'm gonna defend myself.'"

But Berry, who is 30 and started her job teaching art at the Northeast Baltimore school in December, did not defend herself. The girl caught the teacher off guard as other students cheered her on and screamed, "Hit her!"

"She just started beating on me relentlessly," Berry said, recalling the Friday morning incident that left her with a sore shoulder and a broken blood vessel in her eye.

As it turned out, one of the kids in the class was recording what happened on a cell phone. Video footage was posted on the social networking site MySpace and aired on local television news, showing a teenage girl hitting a woman lying on the floor.

The woman's face is not visible.

By yesterday, the head of the Baltimore Teachers Union and Mayor Sheila Dixon were pointing to the incident in calling for the city school system to dedicate more resources to reducing classroom violence.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told WBAL Radio that she was "horrified" and said that increased character education, community partnerships and parental responsibility are needed.

"It's just appalling," said Marietta English, president of the union's teacher chapter, adding that Berry is meeting with a union attorney. She said she's been complaining to system officials all year about assaults on teachers. "What I said, you now see on video," she said.

English said her office has been receiving two or three complaints a day of assaults on teachers, many of which are not reported to the school system or police. The system says it has expelled students for assaults on staff members 112 times this school year, compared with 98 at this time last year.

In response to English's complaints, Gen. Bennie E. Williams, chief of staff to schools chief Andres Alonso, agreed a few weeks ago to convene a task force on teacher assaults. Its first meeting was scheduled for yesterday.

While the system declined to comment on the specifics of the alleged assault on Berry, which she reported to school police at 11:45 a.m. Friday, Williams issued a statement yesterday saying that "we are treating this incident with the utmost seriousness." The girl involved has been suspended pending the outcome of the system's investigation.

Part of the public outrage stemmed from how Berry said her principal responded to the incident. She said the principal told her she'd provoked the attack by telling the student she would defend herself.

"That principal might need to be disciplined because no teacher should be disrespected in the classroom," Dixon said at a morning news conference.

While teachers also have to respect students, the mayor said, the principal's response "is unfair to that teacher."

Berry said that she was also frustrated that the principal did not remove the student from the school immediately. As she left the school Friday to go to a medical clinic, Berry said, she had to pass by the girl, bragging to her friends about what she'd done.

The principal, Jean Ragin, did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages yesterday.

News of the assault came the same week as two West Baltimore Middle School students were beaten with lacrosse sticks by peers who mistook red trim on one of the boys' athletic shoes as a gang sign.

"It's getting out of hand," Dixon said. "This might sound harsh, but I believe we have to come up with some very stern discipline action. Young people now feel, some feel, that it's acceptable, and it's not acceptable."