Despite a loud and boisterous protest from a number of students who shut down a meeting of the Baltimore City school board for a time, the commissioners voted Wednesday night on a plan to close several city schools.
Tre Murphy, 18, and six other students from Heritage High School walked to the front of the boardroom, wearing "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts and shouting call-and-response chants with their hands in the air.
As board members watched, they staged a "die-in" similar to those popularized by police brutality protesters across the country, and interrupted each time officials tried to continue to vote on schools slated for closure.
School board members took a roughly 30-minute recess, during which the students sat in the commissioners' chairs and listened to community members' angry comments about the closure.
"It's plain and simple, the school board needs to retract their vote," Murphy said.
The commissioners returned and voted to close another four of the six schools recommended for closure by June 2015. The plan was designed to address declining enrollment at those schools. It's part of a larger $980 million effort to build new schools and renovate others.
State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, City Councilman Brandon Scott and school police officers spoke with protesters to express their support but asked them to stop disrupting the meeting.
Carter Conway also opposed the closure of Heritage High. "I was here to protest, but there's a form and a fashion and a way to do it," she told the students.
She and city schools CEO Gregory Thornton pledged to meet with the students about their concerns.
"Closing and moving schools is always challenging, but we've endeavored to do so with sensitivity," Thornton said. He added that he recognizes that schools serve as a "light house in many communities."
In addition to Heritage, the board voted to close Dr. Raynor Browne Elementary/Middle, Langston Hughes Elementary, Northeast Middle and W.E.B. DuBois High in June, at the end of the 2014-15 school year.
Thornton asked the commissioners to postpone voting on the recommended closure of Abbottston Elementary. The community raised so many questions and concerns about closing the school that Thornton said he wanted to address those over the next month before a vote.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who championed Abbottston in public meetings about the closures, said she was "very happy" to hear the community would be given a chance to show that keeping the Waverly neighborhood school open is a sustainable and effective option. She hopes the system will give it more than a month to prove its worth.
"I presume we'll have time to demonstrate we're capable of reaching full capacity within our own school zones," she said. "Surely we'll never fill Abbottston if there's a sword hanging over our head. We need time to continue our growth."
The proposal to close Langston Hughes Elementary drew ire from its Park Heights neighborhood. Many residents said they were concerned about sending students more than a mile through crime-ridden neighborhoods to nearby Arlington or Pimlico.
Thornton said the system would reach out to the community and do "whatever it takes" to make sure their commute is safe.