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U.S. Cabinet secretaries visit Douglass High School

U.S. Cabinet secretaries visit Douglass High School
United States Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-7th, Md.) and Douglass High School student Maurice Glenn, 15 chat during a press conference at Frederick Douglass High School after state and national officials met with students. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and Education Secretary Arne Duncan spent Wednesday afternoon at Frederick Douglass High School, where they discussed financial literacy and heard students' concerns about the lack of jobs and opportunities in Baltimore.

Perez said he and other federal officials went to Douglass to listen to students whose school was in the heart of the violence that broke out at nearby Mondawmin Mall last week and spilled into rioting and looting across the city.

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It was a boiling point amid the protests that ignited after the death of Freddie Gray, 25, who died April 19, a week after sustaining a severe spinal cord injury in Baltimore police custody.

Joining Perez and Duncan was Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson, a Baltimore native whose parents graduated from Douglass in 1955.

The officials held roundtable sessions with students throughout the day. The sessions were closed to reporters.

Perez said he asked leaders and youth what Baltimore needs and how the Labor Department could support the city. Jobs was the biggest response, he said.

He noted that the federal government provided roughly $5 million in grants last week to Ferguson, Mo., after similar events unfolded there.

"We have had a similar conversation here in Baltimore where we are seeking to replicate [that] model," Perez said. "What we said to the group is, our goal is to get these resources out with alacrity, a matter of weeks, not a matter of months."

No details were provided about what support to Baltimore would look like, but a Labor Department official said Perez is working with state and local leaders on a project to provide job training, especially to young adults in West Baltimore.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who joined the Cabinet secretaries at Douglass, said the actions of some youths last week were an expression of "pain, frustration and trying to make sure that they have a way to see their futures."

Duncan said it was clear from the conversations with students that they need more mentors and role models.

"There are people out there on the corners doing things we don't like, but they're there 24/7, rain or shine," he said. "They simply outwork us, they out-recruit us."

For Duncan, the visit to Douglass was a return to a school that once showed signs of transformation.

Last year, he and then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. visited the school to debut national guidelines on school discipline. While there, Duncan spoke of improvements at Douglass in recent years with the help of $4.2 million in federal money allocated to the state's worst schools.

The school had reduced suspensions by 46 percent since 2007 and posted its highest graduation rate in at least five years.

But four months later the principal credited with the school's turnaround pleaded guilty to defrauding the federal government of nearly $2 million intended to feed disadvantaged children. City leaders said they worried how that would affect the school's progress.

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On Wednesday, students tried to show their resilience.

Montreze Watt wore the school's uniform. "Thugs do not wear ties and sports jackets," he said.

"We're all about change for the community," he said. "It's going to start with Douglass; it's going to end with Douglass."

Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

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