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Fear joins Southern High's curriculum


Outside Cross Street Market, the South Baltimore mecca of fresh sliced deli meats, seafood, produce, roasted peanuts and grilled sausage, two dozen city police officers warily watched the throngs of students yesterday.

The increased police presence -- what one longtime merchant dubbed "a police state right outside our market" -- came in response to fears among residents and business owners about a spate of after-school violence near Southern High School.

In the span of a few weeks, numerous fights, some the product of long-festering neighborhood rivalries, a BB-gun shooting of a 14-year-old Southern student near the block-long brick market and vandalism of market stands have scared away shoppers and alarmed homeowners.

Yesterday, many students inside the three-story school in the 1100 block of Covington St. just south of Federal Hill also worried aloud about violence and, like merchants and homeowners, said enough is enough.

As the "Breakthrough Team," a school system crisis-intervention group, went from classroom to classroom, its members heard again and again from students worried and angry that a small minority of violent students had tarnished the school's reputation and spread fear inside and outside its graffiti-marred doors.

"I wake up and I don't want to go to school because I don't know what's going to happen, and I'm afraid of violence," said Tiffany Alston, a 17-year-old senior. "I came to school to get an education, and I don't want to wake up and say, 'I might die today.' "

"Most of us here are trying to do good, to do right, and the whole school's taken down by a few," said Eddie Smith, a 17-year-old junior.

Eddie attends school full-time and works full-time at a restaurant to support his 2-year-old son, Eddie Jr. Many of his former friends, have succumbed to the lure of easier money and started dealing drugs and carrying guns, he said.

"If they think they're going to do that the rest of their lives," Eddie said, "there's only two ways out for them: They either go to jail or they die."

He and other students pledged to try to spread that message to disruptive students and report those who bring drugs or weapons to school.

The Breakthrough Team -- whose members include social workers, psychologists and addictions counselors -- said the school can prevent violence only if students cooperate. Yesterday, team members passed out stickers bearing the number 396-8591, the telephone number for reporting drugs or weapons to the the "safe schools" hot line. Most students said they would not hesitate to call.

Students also said that Southern has become a "dumping ground" to which the school system has been sending about 40 students a year there after their removal from other schools for serious offenses, including weapons violations. Gary L. Thrift, assistant superintendent for the Southern area, has discontinued that practice in response to the recent violent incidents.

Southern Principal Cecilia M. Chesno acknowledged that many students fear for their safety in the school but said it has been spared serious violence for the most part.

Since school started in September, four youths who are not Southern students were arrested after they allegedly beat and robbed students inside the school. One student was arrested and expelled after bringing an unloaded handgun to school, and another was arrested after bringing a knife.

Ms. Chesno noted that most of the violence has happened not at the school, but about six blocks away, near the Cross Street Market, where about 1,300 of the 1,560 students catch Mass Transit Administration buses.

She said the school plans to work closely with merchants, lawmakers and community groups to come up with ways to ease tensions. "I think they have legitimate concerns," she said. "When you dismiss 1,300 kids and they walk up the street in a huge group, they'll be kids, and you're bound to have some tensions."

The MTA has increased the number of buses sent directly to the school -- instead of to the Cross Street area -- to eight from five and hopes to send more to the school to reduce the number of students walking through the neighborhood and into the market, Ms. Chesno said.

Students -- and some teen-agers who do not attend Southern -- often converge near Light and Cross streets and rival groups from Cherry Hill, East Baltimore, South Baltimore and Curtis Bay sometimes try to settle disputes, students said.

The increased police presence has reduced rowdiness and violence considerably, merchants and residents say, but some worried that the tensions might worsen when the temporarily beefed-up police contingent leaves.

Inside Herb's Bargain Center on Light Street, a store crammed with everything from Elvis dolls to George Bush mugs to Baltimore Colts paraphernalia, owner Herb Rosenberg said business has steadily worsened in recent weeks.

"It's never been as bad as it is now," said Mr. Rosenberg, who has owned the store for 17 years. "People are afraid to even come in my shop these days."

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