School violence appalls officials

Jolita Berry, an art teacher at Reginald Lewis High School, recuperates at home in Charles Village after being assaulted by a female 10th grade student in school.
Jolita Berry, an art teacher at Reginald Lewis High School, recuperates at home in Charles Village after being assaulted by a female 10th grade student in school. (Sun photo by Amy Davis)
The trouble began, Jolita Berry said, when she asked a girl in one of her art classes at Reginald F. Lewis High School to sit down.

The student did not obey, coming closer to confront the teacher. "She said she's gonna bang me," Berry said. "I said, 'Back up, you're in my space. If you hit me, I'm gonna defend myself.'"

But Berry, who is 30 and started her job teaching art at the Northeast Baltimore school in December, did not defend herself. The girl caught the teacher off guard as other students cheered her on and screamed, "Hit her!"

"She just started beating on me relentlessly," Berry said, recalling the Friday morning incident that left her with a sore shoulder and a broken blood vessel in her eye.

As it turned out, one of the kids in the class was recording what happened on a cell phone. Video footage was posted on the social networking site MySpace and aired on local television news, showing a teenage girl hitting a woman lying on the floor.

The woman's face is not visible.

By yesterday, the head of the Baltimore Teachers Union and Mayor Sheila Dixon were pointing to the incident in calling for the city school system to dedicate more resources to reducing classroom violence.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told WBAL Radio that she was "horrified" and said that increased character education, community partnerships and parental responsibility are needed.

"It's just appalling," said Marietta English, president of the union's teacher chapter, adding that Berry is meeting with a union attorney. She said she's been complaining to system officials all year about assaults on teachers. "What I said, you now see on video," she said.

English said her office has been receiving two or three complaints a day of assaults on teachers, many of which are not reported to the school system or police. The system says it has expelled students for assaults on staff members 112 times this school year, compared with 98 at this time last year.

In response to English's complaints, Gen. Bennie E. Williams, chief of staff to schools chief Andres Alonso, agreed a few weeks ago to convene a task force on teacher assaults. Its first meeting was scheduled for yesterday.

While the system declined to comment on the specifics of the alleged assault on Berry, which she reported to school police at 11:45 a.m. Friday, Williams issued a statement yesterday saying that "we are treating this incident with the utmost seriousness." The girl involved has been suspended pending the outcome of the system's investigation.

Part of the public outrage stemmed from how Berry said her principal responded to the incident. She said the principal told her she'd provoked the attack by telling the student she would defend herself.

"That principal might need to be disciplined because no teacher should be disrespected in the classroom," Dixon said at a morning news conference.

While teachers also have to respect students, the mayor said, the principal's response "is unfair to that teacher."

Berry said that she was also frustrated that the principal did not remove the student from the school immediately. As she left the school Friday to go to a medical clinic, Berry said, she had to pass by the girl, bragging to her friends about what she'd done.

The principal, Jean Ragin, did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages yesterday.

News of the assault came the same week as two West Baltimore Middle School students were beaten with lacrosse sticks by peers who mistook red trim on one of the boys' athletic shoes as a gang sign.

"It's getting out of hand," Dixon said. "This might sound harsh, but I believe we have to come up with some very stern discipline action. Young people now feel, some feel, that it's acceptable, and it's not acceptable."

The teachers union has long asserted that city school administrators aren't reporting violent incidents or doing enough to punish children who are violent, for fear their schools will be labeled "persistently dangerous" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Maryland defines a persistently dangerous school as one with a certain percentage of its student population suspended for violent offenses. Critics say that that discourages suspensions and makes violence worse because students see they can get away with it.

Social networking sites like MySpace and the video-sharing site YouTube, along with the prevalence of cell phones with video cameras, have made school violence and other inappropriate behavior easier to document.

YouTube contains footage of boys fighting in the bathroom at Thurgood Marshall High and students at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High trying to throw a girl out of a window.

Berry said one of her friends found the video of her assault on MySpace, and her union representatives urged her to bring it to the news media's attention.

Since becoming CEO of the city schools last summer, Alonso has encouraged principals to look at alternatives to suspension for nonviolent offenses, but urged zero tolerance for violence.

Some educators say his directive has been misinterpreted, with principals discouraging all suspensions. Alonso has said he will fire any administrator who does not honestly report school violence.

Reginald F. Lewis High is one of the smaller schools created by the breakup of the large, chaotic Northern High School in 2002. Last summer, the state put Lewis on probation for its high number of suspensions for violent incidents. If the rate of suspensions keeps up this year, the school will be labeled persistently dangerous.

Another school located in the same complex, W.E.B DuBois High School, already has the persistently dangerous designation, meaning it must offer students the option to transfer elsewhere.

At a school board meeting last month, English complained to Alonso and the board about teacher assaults. "You will not have good test scores ... as long as these students are allowed to run the halls, come back to the classroom and continue to act in a violent way," she said.

She asked for a meeting to discuss "strategies to help students who need some kind of support because obviously they're crying out for help," a request that led to the formation of the task force.

Alonso responded that night that he'd be happy to meet with English and anyone else about school violence, but he said he wanted specifics about incidents that are not being reported, not generalized allegations.

"The message that I have made very clear to principals is that ... any student who commits the kind of offense that leads to persistently dangerous status by law has to be part of a process which takes them out of a school.

"If that is not happening, then the law is not being followed in the school, and I need to intervene. ... If you have specifics, bring them to my attention. I will respond immediately. I would rather deal with specifics than with the notion that the kids are running wild, because that's not helpful."