Baltimore city schools CEO Gregory Thornton welcomed students back to Frederick Douglass High School on Wednesday, two days after the school was thrust into a national spotlight when some of its students engaged in a violent exchange with city police.
The melee on Monday broke out across the street from Douglass at the Mondawmin Mall transportation hub, where some 5,000 students catch the bus every day, and set off events throughout the city that included riots and looting. The violence came after peaceful protests following the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old man who died after being injured while in police custody.
Schools were closed Tuesday as the city reeled from the events.
"Yesterday wasn't a great day for us," Thornton told students at Douglass on Wednesday. "But today is going to be a great day."
A calm pervaded the historic high school's hallways, where students walk among posters with quotes such as "Without a struggle, there can be no progress," from the school's celebrated African-American namesake.
Teachers wore T-shirts printed with "We are Douglass" and "One Douglass," and greeted Thornton and visitors with smiles.
In classrooms, though, frustration was still stirring.
Teachers and students spoke about how entire school, which in the past has been recognized by U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan for its turnaround efforts, seemed to be defined by the action of a few.
Sophomore Dominick Carter said he was frustrated that only Douglass students were identified as aggressors Monday, when students from other schools also participated.
"This is about redeeming the name of our school," Carter said. "The hoodlums that were here, they're not here anymore."
City school officials said that Monday, about 75 students left the school around 3 p.m., an hour before dismissal. By that time, city police had taken up positions at Mondawmin Mall in riot gear. Posts on social media had claimed there would be a "purge" – a play on the name of a movie about a 12-hour period of lawlessness.
Many students hurled bricks at the police and yelled slogans such as "The Purge" to "Justice for Freddie."
The Maryland Transit Administration suspended bus service at Mondawmin on Monday; a spokesman for the MTA said police requested they do so.
Thornton and other school officials said that as a result, thousands of students were stranded, educators had to walk special needs students to bus stops blocks away and teachers and school police officers offered other students rides.
Douglass Principal Iona Spikes, who on Monday acknowledged some students "did not make good choices," said Wednesday her message to students would be that "positive actions produce positive results" — and negative actions would carry consequences. She said she was able to identify some students involved in violence from media coverage.
"There are students today I will be speaking to, calling their parents and snitching on," she said.
Thornton told a group of students "I need you to stand up right." He said school officials and school police are behind them.
The students peppered Thornton with vents about strained relationships with both those groups. Students said they are often harassed by officers at the Mondawmin bus stop.
"I appreciate you and the police taking care of us in here, but what about out there?" one student asked Thornton.
In Rachel Nash's Honors English class, students wrote letters to the media and city officials expressing frustration about the incidents, and the conditions and events that precipitated it. Her students planned to deliver the letters to media, police and city officials Wednesday afternoon.
"It's really unfortunate and unfair that our whole student body was being portrayed in this way," Nash said. "A lot of our students are scared and frustrated, and I want them to get that out in a constructive way."
The Rev. Jamal Bryant showed up at the school with Wale, a popular rap musician. Outside the school, Wale said he was "heartbroken" to see the riots unfold on television.
"Regardless of what happened out here, these are the young leaders of tomorrow, and they have to look in the mirror and see something better than what they're being [portrayed] as on TV," he said.
"Right now we got to focus on the kids, and I want to know exactly what they want," he said. "Nobody is speaking for them or speaking to them."
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