The trouble with Hampstead Hill


THE baseball-bat beating of Expedito "Pedro" Lugo in Patterson Park again has focused attention on Hampstead Hill Middle School, a place where all the ingredients of trouble have been in place for years.

I live in the neighborhood, and I know.

It's a school whose students seem out of control. The principal, Preston Roney, seems unable or unwilling to keep his students in check. Other middle and junior high principals in the city literally control the area around their buildings before and after school. They do it by patrolling and making it clear that they are in charge, that the turf is theirs. Roney and his staff haven't done this.

Race is not the major cause of troubles at the school, though any majority-black school (886 blacks, 258 whites, 37 Indians, 19 Hispanics and 18 Asians) in a predominantly white city neighborhood is bound to be a source of tension. As a resident of the block between the school and the bus stop most students use, I know that many neighbors are afraid of all of the students. Not all of them are violent, but how can we tell a nice student from one looking for trouble, particularly around a school where students are experiencing the raging hormones of their "tween" years?

Some people are trying to use the school to stir up racial hatred. White supremacist stickers appeared on streetlight poles last summer and fall, but most neighbors tore them down or ignored them. How can you blame only the black students when a white student is just as likely to vandalize your property? Or to walk behind your car as you're backing up to park and dare you to hit him? I was 16 and returning from a local store when a white girl cutting class from Hampstead decided to get a few laughs by pulling a switchblade on me. Unlike Pedro, I was lucky. She was interested in showing off, not robbing or attacking me.

Mayor Schmoke has asked the Mass Transit Administration to dispatch more buses to Hampstead Hill so students won't wander the neighborhood. He's also requested staggered dismissal hours and asked police to patrol the area more often.

They are all old suggestions. In the early 1970s, many city schools were on staggered shifts to relieve overcrowding. Now, as then, the idea is of limited value. Kids on later shifts resent having to stay longer, and instead of being flooded with one wave of students, the neighborhood will have to contend with three or four smaller waves. And increased police patrols have a way of being transitory. Besides, the police have always resisted more patrols around Hampstead because their shift change occurs when school is letting out.

I know I sound cynical, and I am. I've seen many half-hearted attempts by the school system and the city. A few years ago students were terrorizing a small coffee shop at the bus stop. After students broke the shop's door, a policeman was stationed at the shop when school began and ended. After awhile, the protection stopped. It's now standard policy in neighborhood stores to limit the number of students (or anyone the same age as the students) allowed in at a time.

The Hampstead Hill problems aren't new. When I was young, neighbors didn't like being around the students. Now, the neighbors are afraid. Neighbors, and no doubt some of the students' parents, have been complaining for years to no avail. It takes attempted murder to get something done. Something that probably won't last.

What really scares me is that Hampstead Hill isn't the only school like this in the metropolitan area. I'm afraid that incidents like this are going to become more common. Is it any wonder that people like me are moving out of the city?

Beth Hannan works in the wire room of The Baltimore Sun.

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