Inspired by unrest, Karl Perry works to redefine city school climate

Karl Perry watched the violent exchange between teens and police officers in the streets surrounding Mondawmin Mall on April 27 with dismay and disappointment.

After the rioting sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, the Edmondson-Westside High School principal sent a scathing email to the school system's ombudsman, asserting that school system leaders searching for answers needed to look in the mirror.


He blamed a "soft code of conduct" as a "significant contributor to the mayhem."

"There is a sense of lawlessness in many schools now because principals have been trained to turn the other cheek and accept any type of crime in our schools," Perry wrote. "What I am going to do … is return to zero-tolerance enforcement of my expectations for appropriate behaviors."


Two months later, city schools CEO Gregory Thornton named Perry chief school supports officer, overseeing attendance, suspensions, enrollment, athletics and school police. The job includes a mission to help principals improve the school environment.

"My city was in crisis," Perry said. "I had the opportunity to reshape the mindset of Baltimore City schools, and that will then reshape our communities."

Thornton said it wasn't Perry's harsh assessment of school discipline, but his track record for improving it that got him the job.

The CEO cited Perry's ability to engage students in a way that convinced them to "take ownership of their education and their actions." He said he wants Perry to make that a priority for the entire district.

"He's able to comprehensively look at the whole child, which is very important to me," Thornton said. "With that comes high expectations, and I saw those alive in his school."

Perry, 48, worked his way through the ranks of the school system over a 23-year career, from classroom teacher to principal.

In his new post, the third-generation educator's goals include implementing peer mediation among students in every school, expanding youth leadership opportunities and creating a new school policing strategy. He also encourages schools to form partnerships with churches in their communities.

Perry also said it's time for a gut check. While the April rioting, which followed Gray's death from an injury sustained while in police custody, spread across the city and involved more than just students, he said schools can play a role in preventing future unrest.


"We can address all of these issues we're seeing in our city — riots, crime — by the culture we establish in our schools," he said.

Soft-spoken and unassuming, Perry is known to former students and parents for his cool "swagger" and for creating a school culture where proper conduct isn't just dictated by a code, but is a way of life.

Derrick Tate, a 2014 Edmondson graduate who now attends college in upstate New York, said Perry and students operated with mutual respect.

"He always gave us time and space — but always said in the classroom, it's about business," Tate said, "We never really had to see his mean side, because we never wanted to disappoint him."

Tate recalled Perry issuing a diploma to the family of a student who was killed just before graduation. He also said Perry kept his word after promising students that they could hold their prom at M&T Bank Stadium if the Class of 2014 maintained a high GPA.

"We held up our part, and he held up his part," Tate said. "That's how it was with everything."


DeSadra Shields, whose daughters attended Renaissance Academy High School when Perry was principal there, recalled that her daughter wrote him a proposal for a cheerleading squad — which he framed and hung on his office wall.

She said he understood "all those little things can be great things."

While his predecessors have undertaken rewriting the school system's code of conduct, Perry said that is not on his radar. The document dictates what disciplinary measures principals can take for infractions.

He will, however, seek to impose his own disciplinary philosophy: "Kids have to own their behavior, but we have to teach them the right behavior."

He pointed to the district's most recent climate surveys, in which students expressed the most dissatisfaction about their learning environment — only 43 percent said they felt students respected each other, and 52 percent said they did not believe their school was welcoming and clean.

At Edmondson, Perry decorated the school in red and white to boost school pride, put picnic benches outside for students to eat lunch and established a special pass allowing students to visit him if they felt they were on the brink of an outburst.


He got students to stay on campus, in part by admonishing nearby Edmondson Village merchants who were serving students in the middle of the day.

When Perry left, Edmondson had a 94 percent graduation rate, and suspensions had dropped 76 percent since the beginning of his tenure in 2012.

On a recent tour of the sprawling Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School — one of 35 schools he's visited so far this year — he tested fire exit doors, checked bathrooms for graffiti and read the school's "Standards of Success."

As students changed classes, the hallways filled with a chorus of teenage conversations. But Perry was only listening for one word.

"You notice the children speak — they say 'Hi' and they don't even know us," he said. "That tells you a lot. That tells you they're used to being seen, and used to being heard."

Perry later came upon a freshman who sat slumped in detention. Their conversation started with Perry instructing the student to "give a handshake when you introduce yourself," and ended with the young man pocketing Perry's business card.


Mergenthaler Principal Craig Rivers said he admires Perry for being "about order, but he takes care of the kids."

"He understands what most of us in schools know: You're doing a disservice to let them think that some of this behavior is OK in the real world," Rivers said.

Perry also is learning that a large part of his job is to be a first responder during crises in schools. This year, he has helped schools through floods, fights and fatalities — he said his toughest day on the job came when 9-year-old Darius Clark died last month after falling at Gwynns Falls Elementary School.

Frederick Douglass High School Principal Kelvin Bridgers said he didn't know what to expect when Perry showed up after a video of a football player brutally attacking a teammate at his school went viral online.

Bridgers said usually when "the boss" comes, it's to figure out what broke down. Instead, Perry stayed for the day and encouraged Bridgers to continue what he was doing right.

"It's refreshing to have someone who says things like, 'When I was in your chair...' or 'I would have done the same thing,'" Bridgers said.


"Instead of having an evaluator in times of crisis, you have a thought partner," he said. "It's the personal touch that he has brought that to the table — to know that he's just an email or phone call away."