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Frederick Douglass High School struggles to return to normality after shooting

A 25-year-old man entered Frederick Douglass High School shortly after noon and shot a hall monitor, police said. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)

It’s been a week since the sound of gunfire punctured an ordinary afternoon at Frederick Douglass High School, but the community there says it will take more time before any sense of normality returns to the sprawling Northwest Baltimore building.

Friday is expected to be the first full day back at school for Douglass teachers and students. Many remain shocked at the act of violence that unfolded there: A 25-year-old family member of a student came into the school and shot 56-year-old Michael Marks, a special education assistant, police say.

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Marks remains in serious condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center. The alleged shooter, Neil Davis, has been charged with attempted first-degree murder. No students were injured in the shooting, but many heard the shots ring out.

“I believe we’re ready — not everybody, but we have support for those people,” said Rodrick Bingham, who works with Douglass students with emotional disabilities.

School has hardly been in session this week, as the Douglass community tries to heal from the trauma.

On Monday and Tuesday, snow and ice cancelled classes across the district. On Wednesday, Douglass opened for three hours before district officials determined it was too much for some students and staff and sent everyone home. The district closed Douglass again for students on Thursday, but staff gathered so they could chart a path forward.

By Friday, the school was expected to open. Teachers spent Thursday preparing to discuss the shooting with students — how it made them feel and how the school will improve its safety protocols. The Baltimore Police Department came to give teachers training on how to react if there’s an active shooter. Thursday happened to be the one-year anniversary of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The shooting at Douglass sent shock waves through the district, where gun violence inside schools is rare and these buildings are often seen as refuges from the perpetual bloodshed on city streets.

“There is a lot of anxiety as far as principals and administrators go. Our schools are supposed to be a safe haven for students and administrators,” said Jimmy Gittings, the president of the administrators union. “Something needs to be done about the violence that is occurring in our schools.”

Friday’s shooting could have political ramifications. It spurred renewed debate about whether school police should be allowed to carry weapons during the school day. Almost immediately, the school board signaled it would reconsider its opposition to arming officers during school hours.

Under current law, city schools police are allowed to carry their service weapons while patrolling the exterior of school buildings before and after school hours, but they are required to store their weapons in a secure location during the school day. The officer assigned to Douglass, along with area supervisors who happened to be at the school Friday, took Davis into custody.

The school police union has pledged to review what happened “from top to bottom” and issue an incident report, said Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, the union president.

Boatwright was at Douglass Wednesday for the limited time the school was open. Emotions were running high, he said. There were staff members in tears, comforting each other. It was clear, Boatwright said, that not enough time had passed for them to be ready to receive students.

That was echoed by some educators.

“So here's the thing,” Douglass teacher Jesse Schneiderman tweeted Wednesday. “You can think you're okay after a colleague gets shot in your place of work and you have a long weekend and then once you come to work you realize you're super not okay.”

Bingham said the school’s staff was just not prepared to teach yet on Wednesday. It was their first time walking back into the building after it had been marked by gun violence.

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“We needed to just process with each other, hug each other, see each other,” he said. “We needed to talk to each other about how we were feeling and talk about the thing that happened.”

In some ways, Bingham said, it seems like the staff has been hit harder than the students.

“This may sound crazy, but the kids are taking this better than the staff,” he said. “Our students, in this city, are near serious, war-zone activities every day. They’re almost hardened to the fact that a teacher got shot. Many are desensitized to a shooting.”

Amira Toms, a 17-year-old junior, said some students didn’t take what happened seriously because “shootings happen every day in our city.”

“It’s nothing new,” she said.

Still, she said, it’s “shocking that anybody can come to any school to shoot someone and students and teachers suffer from traumatic stress.”

She worries that anyone who was in a nearby hallway could have been shot.

Others seem profoundly affected.

Kadijha Owens-Bey said her son, a Douglass freshman, has barely left the house since the shooting. He wouldn’t go to school for the half-day on Wednesday. He told her that he wants to transfer out of Douglass.

“It’s going to be hard for him to concentrate there,” said Owens-Bey, 36.

During class tomorrow, Bingham said, teachers will answer students questions about how the school will be made safer moving forward.

The teachers discussed ways to improve school safety Thursday. They want all visitors — in addition to students — to have to walk through a metal detector before entering the building. They want a renewed emphasis on making all visitors wear passes for the duration of the time they’re in the school building. They want better communication between teachers and administrators during lock-downs.

“Before this happened,” Bingham said, “I didn’t feel unsafe. You never think it’ll happen at your school.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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