Days after a student was gunned down outside his northeast Baltimore high school and police charged another teenager in the killing, some city and school district officials — including Baltimore Teachers Union leadership — are demanding heightened focus on conflict resolution and emotional health in classrooms.
Teaching those skills could save lives, supporters said during a rally Tuesday evening outside City Hall that began with a moment of silence for Jeremiah Brogden, the Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School junior who died Friday afternoon.
“Our children are crying out for help. When are we going to listen?” said Councilman Zeke Cohen, who organized the gathering.
Those in attendance included representatives from several organizations focused on anti-violence work and youth development, as well as Baltimore teachers, parents and students.
“We are seeing a mental health crisis across our country, but [it] has hit children in Baltimore particularly hard — through violence, reports of increased depression, anxiety and substance use,” Cohen said. “The toll the pandemic took on our kids cannot be overstated.”
He said a teen recently told him it would be easier to purchase a gun than a cigarette.
Friday’s shooting, which unfolded shortly after dismissal at Mervo, marked a tragic end to the first week of school. Brogden, 17, was pronounced dead at Johns Hopkins Hospital — just before his football team had been scheduled to play a home game against Edmondson-Westside High School.
School Police officers quickly apprehended the suspected shooter, a 10th grader at Achievement Academy at Harbor City High School in Northeast Baltimore, and recovered a gun. Officials have not released information about a possible motive, saying only that the suspect argued with Brogden before opening fire.
On Labor Day, Mervo announced a healing and recovery effort that would extend throughout the week, including optional attendance Tuesday and intensive counseling services.
At the rally Tuesday evening, supporters called on the school district to expand an existing program called restorative practices, which seeks to change school culture and reduce suspensions by emphasizing communication, accountability and conflict resolution.
In 2018, 15 Baltimore City schools implemented the program with impressive results, according to a study released in 2020 by Johns Hopkins, the Open Society Institute, the Maryland Carey School of Law and the school system. A year after implementation, suspensions had decreased 44% and surveys showed improved relationships between teachers and students in those schools.
The school system later expanded the program to 56 city public schools. In a statement Tuesday, district officials said the school system is committed to the restorative practices model.
“It is not an immediate or short-term fix to systemic challenges both in the school and the community,” officials said. “Ultimately, given time and proper implementation, the results are stronger relationships among students and staff members, and the fostering of a positive culture and climate in schools.”
Cohen said he plans to ask other councilmembers to approve a resolution calling on the school system to implement restorative practices in every school. While the council can encourage such action, only the Board of School Commissioners has the authority to make it happen.
“We need to go into the schools and have these conversations because without it, we’ll keep going through the same cycles of youth violence,” said Taylor Hines, a recent Mervo graduate who works with the Baltimore-based Healing Youth Alliance. “Anyone can break up a fight. We need emotional mediators.”
Hines said school violence has become the norm for many students, usually fights over relationship dramas or gang activity. Without a robust system for dealing with trauma and conflict among young people, she said, “students feel unheard and teachers feel defeated.”
Diamonté Brown, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said the emphasis should be on creating lasting mental health supports in schools, rather than focusing on increased security or punishment.
“I don’t want to scare them straight,” Brown said. Instead, educators and administrators should form deep relationships with students that make them feel valued — “because it’s difficult to value others when you aren’t able to see value in yourself.”
The Evening Sun
Last year, top city officials received training in trauma-informed care after the council passed the Elijah Cummings Healing City Act, which officials pursued following a 2019 shooting inside Frederick Douglass High School that left special education assistant and former assistant basketball coach Michael Marks with two gunshot wounds. In the months after the shooting, several students lobbied council members for changes, saying conditions at the school after the incident exacerbated their trauma.
When Friday afternoon’s shooting occurred, some Mervo students and staff were inside the building. Nearby residents reported hearing several shots and seeing students flee from the rear of the school on Tivoly Avenue. Alumni and other fans — including Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, a Mervo graduate — were in the area ahead of the football game, which was canceled.
Police said the suspected shooter approached Brogden in the parking lot behind the school, got into a heated argument with him and then pulled the trigger. A Baltimore District Court judge announced Tuesday the teen would be held without bond.
Friends and mentors of Brogden said the Mervo junior was a talented athlete who hoped to play football in college. He recently became a father and spoke openly about trying to stay on the right path and become the best version of himself.
During his remarks Tuesday evening, Cohen called the effort to expand restorative practices “an unprecedented show of unity.” He also acknowledged the massive challenges teachers face trying to keep students on track academically while also addressing mental health concerns.
But he said now is the time for district leaders to give educators the tools and support to build those relationships.
“These moments of tragedy give you an opportunity to pause and refocus,” he said. “We need to make this an urgent priority.”