When reports of a shooter traveled through the halls of Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School, teachers barricaded their classrooms with desks and set booby traps using textbooks. Some did whatever they could to lockdown classrooms where the locks have long been broken.
Two weeks after a staff member was shot and injured in the building, many of these teachers say they feel unsupported by district officials who they believe did not take adequate steps to improve security at the Northwest Baltimore school or to address the trauma both students and staff faced.
A group of teachers told The Baltimore Sun that the response to the shooting was disorganized, and made them feel like they were being rushed back to “business as usual” without enough concern for their or their students’ well-being. Just because the shooting didn’t end with a high death toll, they said, doesn’t mean it should be overlooked.
“The message to kids,” said Douglass teacher Daniel Parsons, “is that the sacred space of your school can be violated and it’s not treated like a big deal.”
About 20 educators have signed a letter detailing their concerns that they plan to send to district officials. The majority of teachers interviewed by The Sun spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retribution.
Douglass principal Craig Rivers said he does not want to diminish teachers’ feelings. After confronting what he calls “a principal’s worst nightmare,” Rivers said the administration and the school system have worked tirelessly to help staff and students heal.
He acknowledged that not all safety improvements were completed by the time students returned to school after the shooting. But in the two weeks since the shooting, he said, the school has fixed multiple security problems and quickly implemented new protocols.
At about noon on Feb. 8, police say a 25-year-old family member of a student came into the school and shot 56-year-old Michael Marks, a special education assistant. No students or other teachers were injured, but some reported hearing the shots ring out. The school went into lockdown, with teachers and students sheltering in place, some of them aware that a shooter could easily enter their classrooms because some doors haven’t had working locks in years.
The teachers said the shooting laid bare some of the issues Douglass has long struggled with: Years of underfunding has led to staffing shortages and facilities that are in disrepair. The teachers also said they have not been trained how to de-escalate tense situations.
The teachers said the event has left some of them with PTSD-like symptoms. They wanted time to heal, but even more important, they wanted to return to a school that was safer. They were worried for their students, many of whom see Douglass as their safe haven in a city ravaged by gun violence.
They called the response to the shooting chaotic.
Initially, Douglass was supposed to be closed for students the Monday after the shooting. Teachers were to use that day to discuss the shooting, get counseling and plan for kids’ return to school. But snow ended up cancelling school district-wide, and those activities were cancelled. The same thing happened on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Feb. 13, the district asked Douglass teachers to report to school on time and for students to arrive two hours later. A number of teachers said they were irate: How, they asked, were traumatized adults supposed to get in front of traumatized kids without preparation or guidance? How were teachers supposed to assure kids that they were safe at school when they hadn’t received any assurances themselves? How were they supposed to get their classrooms back in order with so little time?
Some rooms still looked disheveled from the lockdown procedures, with desks everywhere.
The teachers also noted that on that first day back, students and visiting adults were not all sent through metal detectors on their way into the school building. As of the Feb. 8 shooting, only the main student entrance was outfitted with a metal detector. While children were required to walk through a metal detector in the mornings, people who came in through the visitors’ entrance wouldn’t be scanned. That was the entrance Davis used on the day of the shooting, according to police.
Teachers said their worries about security were borne out once kids got to class: Some students told them they hadn’t gone through a metal detector at the door.
Desha Jones, 14, said she was scared that students didn’t all have to go through a metal detector that day.
“I thought something else could happen,” the freshman said.
History teacher Jesse Schneiderman said he saw some parents walking in the halls with their children, and one mother came into his class without notice.
Rivers acknowledged this, saying increasing security “takes time.”
“We were not ready,” he said. “But by the end of the day, we had two operational metal detectors in two locations.”
After an impromptu school assembly, students were sent home early, at 12:50 p.m.
Parsons said school system officials should have known by 8:15 a.m. — right after they spoke with teachers — that the school wasn’t prepared to open on Wednesday.
“No one made that call,” he said.
The two snow days derailed the school’s planned recovery process, Rivers said, but the decision to open school that Wednesday was made to prioritize children’s needs. He said he knew it would be “rough” to have students and teachers coming back on the same day, but that they “just needed to put our eyes on students.”
He said dozens of people from school system headquarters were there to provide support.
“We had not had contact with students for four days,” he said. “It may not have been popular, but I really hope my teachers, the community and the students understand why we made the decision. It really was about the kids.”
Schneiderman said he felt like teachers were “expected to just suck it up for the kids.” While Douglass teachers are fully dedicated to their students, he said, he feels that attitude is used against them.
“That’s not an excuse to give an inadequate response to a problem,” he said.
The Evening Sun
Amidst pressure from teachers, the district cancelled school for Douglass students the next day.
That Thursday, Baltimore police came to give teachers active shooter training. The staff divided into groups to brainstorm how to make the school safer. Counselors were available to help teachers sort through their emotions.
On Thursday evening, teachers received an email from Rivers outlining security upgrades made in the past 24 hours. According to the email, obtained by The Sun, Rivers said metal detectors had been added to the main office entrance; that all parents and visitors would now have to walk through metal detectors, in addition to students; that the front-door buzzer had been fixed and the visitor badge station updated.
He promised additional upgrades before the end of May, including that all broken locks and doors would be fixed, and that all intercoms and classroom phones would be repaired, and the school’s emergency plan would be revised. He said there would be an increase in the number of support staff.
He added in an interview that all school visitors now would be escorted by a staff member, and that two staffers would be stationed at the front door, instead of one.
“We’re looking at all of our policies,” Rivers said. “We can always be better prepared.”
The day of the Douglass shooting, schools CEO Sonja Santelises promised a review of security protocols at Douglass and all other city schools. District officials have not provided an update on that review, and weren’t made available for comment Friday.