Charles "Roc" Dutton came home yesterday, hoping to help save a small part of a generation of inner-city blacks he views as more imperiled than any that came before.
In jammed auditoriums at three city schools, the Baltimore-born actor looked into the young faces and spoke of violence, of fear, of the pain of poverty and of temptations.
The guy the students recognized instantly as the affable, bald garbage man on the Fox TV show "Roc" knows all about the temptations.
Not far from Coldstream Park Elementary in Waverly, where he began the day speaking to high school students from throughout the city, he once played another role -- that of the youth who equated survival with being tough.
It landed him in reform school, then in prison for seven years for fatally stabbing a man in a fight.
Yesterday, as he kicked off the 177-school district's "Safe Schools Week," Mr. Dutton listened to familiar laments he's heard from East Baltimore to the Watts section of Los Angeles. And he delivered his plea with the passion of a preacher.
"People are dying, thousands of beautiful gifted kids whose lives are over," he said. "Like Northern Ireland, like Bosnia, it's a war zone out there."
He pities the children, he said, for they know fears he never felt anywhere near a school yard.
"In my day, we used to just duke it out," he said. "There was no such thing as guns and murders and killing each other."
As part of Mr. Dutton's appearance, students at the three schools watched a "Roc" episode in which a teen-age boy brings a gun to school and points it at gang members who had harassed him and demanded his jacket.
At the end of the show -- in which the boy, Terence, is killed by a gang member -- Roc speaks directly to viewers about the violence threatening young blacks.
After the episode, students lined up to speak to Mr. Dutton and to offer real-life accounts of the violence afflicting their generation.
A student from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School recalled a student fatally shot near the school over a jacket. Another, from Forest Park High, had a similar story.
"The TV show with Terence -- that happens every day around my way," said Shawniquea Robinson, a Carver High 11th-grader. "I'm kind of glad that you put it on TV, but there's no stopping it.
"I got a whole lot of friends or associates -- most of them are gang boys, doing drugs and whatever. It's not that they want to turn to drugs, because most of them are teen-agers. But it's no jobs out here, it's nowhere to go. Around my way, no recreation centers or nothing that you can do to go out and have fun."
Yesterday marked the start of the third annual "Safe Schools Week." The idea is to get students to talk about violence and ways to prevent it, and city schools will do that this week -- after every student sees the "Roc" episode.
Superintendent Walter G. Amprey noted that past efforts to involve students have led to efforts such as student conflict-mediation, a hot line to report drugs and "safe houses" where students can stop if threatened.
Since September, school police have reported 1,227 student arrests for everything from disorderly conduct to assault with a deadly weapon.
Officers have confiscated 96 handguns, compared with 47 in the entire 1992-93 school year, and recorded 35 cases of weapons used in assaults or robberies.
Students, along with Mr. Dutton, said the news media and Hollywood share some blame for constantly portraying blacks as unsuccessful or violent, and for glorifying violence.
"It's always there -- a black person killing a black person on TV," said Myron Missouri, a 12th-grader at Frederick Douglass High. "What kids see is what they copy. What kid doesn't want to be like TV?"
Mr. Dutton said he rewrote the ending to the "Terence" episode -- and added the plea to viewers -- after visiting Baltimore during a week when two teen-agers and a 10-year-old boy were murdered.
In the original script, the boy survived a gunshot wound. But, Mr. Dutton said, "We had to go to the extreme to really reflect the problem as it is."
To "get rid of the violence and to deglorify the violence," he called for a Hollywood anti-violence campaign on the scale of previous anti-smoking campaigns.