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City high school students discuss riots, broader concerns

Frederick Douglass High School senior Uriel Gray said his school was unfairly blamed for rioting that erupted in Baltimore following the funeral for Freddie Gray in April.

"They had no way of getting home," said Gray,18, of students who couldn't leave the transportation hub at nearby Mondawmin Mall because it was shut down, putting students in danger and contributing to crowds that fought with police in tactical gear.

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Uriel Gray, who is not related to Freddie Gray, expressed his frustrations with how city leaders handled the rioting at a meeting Saturday with about 100 city high school students at Coppin State University. City school officials held the forum to discuss the unrest in April and to prepare for the forthcoming court hearings for the six officers charged in Freddie Gray's arrest and death. They also talked with students about how to advocate for broader reforms in the city.

"We're going to have some really challenging days ahead, and as a result of that, I really wanted to hear from kids throughout the city who could advise me, and certainly bring new ideas that I think will allow our community to continue to move forward," Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton said.

The trial against the officers is not scheduled until October. They are charged with various offenses, ranging from misconduct in office to second-degree murder in death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man who died in April after suffering a spinal cord injury in police custody. The city erupted in riots, arson and looting just hours after his funeral.

Hearings are scheduled over the next two weeks, when a judge will hear arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys on several motions, including whether the charges should be dismissed, whether Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby should be removed from the case, and whether the trial should be moved out of Baltimore.

In addition to meeting with students, in preparation for the proceedings city police met with other law enforcement agencies last week to prepare for potential unrest, and city officials announced the creation of a Joint Information Center to help share information between local city, state and federal agencies and other institutions.

The theme of Saturday's forum with students was "Advocating for What You Believe," where they heard from speakers who tried to give direction to the youths on how to identify problems in their community and seek solutions instead of engaging in violence.

"This is just about basically rebuilding and supporting communities, and hopefully, more highly effective ways to focus on our young people and how they can make a contribution and move forward," Thornton said.

The group broke off into classroom-size groups. In Uriel Gray's group, the students talked about the riots, relationships with police, about possible outcomes of the trial and other long-term issues in the community, such as the possibility of a dirt bike track.

Uriel Gray said he felt that "all the blame was being thrown on Douglass," which then saw a heavily armed presence from the National Guard afterward. "Why do you have guns pointed at a high school?"

The teenagers were passionate in discussing their concerns. They expressed frustration at their peers and the community for participating in the rioting, but also identified with the rioters, saying the violence broke out because of exasperation over communities long-neglected by city leaders.

"Baltimore needed this attention to show what is actually going on," one student said of the riots during the group discussions.

When discussion leaders asked students what they expect from the trial against officers, many replied out loud, "Justice."

One girl said she hoped that it would result in jail time for the officers; another said she hoped a jury would be fairly selected. She said she wanted to see a jury that was properly vetted for a fair trial.

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