Teacher's death spurs changes Howard school struggled under strict new rules

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was not obvious at first glance that it was a special day at Columbia's Wilde Lake High School. But a closer look found the signs.

A newly laid stone draped in white cloth marked the campus entrance, next to a freshly planted cypress tree and flower garden. Students and teachers pinned tiny green ribbons to their athletic jerseys and backpacks.

These were quiet reminders that this past Thursday was a day to look back.

One year ago, Lawrence C. Hoyer, a beloved 60-year-old biology teacher at Wilde Lake, had a heart attack and died immediately after breaking up a fight on campus.

At the time, Wilde Lake -- the county's biggest, most racially diverse high school -- was considered by some to be unruly, even out of control.

But this year, spurred by a strict new principal and the memory of the fallen teacher, students and staff members have tightened the reins. Though the changes have not come without controversy, most say that a year later, Wilde Lake is a better school.

"We want an environment that is comfortable, where people don't have to constantly look over their shoulders in the hallways, where they can feel comfortable eating in the cafeteria," Principal Roger Plunkett said. "We want a place that is safe. We've done that."

Last fall, Plunkett dedicated the year to Hoyer, the veteran teacher who headed Wilde Lake's science department. It would be a year of healing, academics and peace, he said.

Students and staff members fell into step.

Immediately after Hoyer's death, a group of students -- mostly freshmen who had not had Hoyer as a teacher -- formed a group called Students Against Violent Encounters (SAVE). The group would study nonviolent conflict resolution and teach it to students in Wilde Lake's middle and elementary feeder schools. More than 300 of Wilde Lake's 1,300 students signed up.

Teachers raised thousands of dollars for a scholarship in Hoyer's name. The first $500 prize will be awarded next week to a college-bound senior who will study science.

Fewer fights this year

Plunkett posted the rules in every classroom and hallway, and teachers stood watch outside their rooms between classes.

A year later, violence on campus has greatly diminished. School statistics show that 48 fights last year resulted in suspensions, Plunkett says. This year, he says, that number is three, the most recent last week.

Mark Richmond, a police officer based at Wilde Lake who divides his time among five county high schools, estimates that about 10 incidents involving police have occurred this year on the campus, compared with about 50 last year, he said.

"Mr. Plunkett has a great deal to do with that," Richmond said.

And Hoyer's death?

"I'm sure that's a constant reminder," he said. "People reflect back on what happened. I don't think people have forgotten that at all."

Remembering their teacher

Evidence of Hoyer's legacy was evident at a short, tearful memorial ceremony Thursday organized by SAVE.

In the warm afternoon sunshine, Hoyer's widow, Phyllis Hoyer, and about 150 students and staff members -- including some who now work at other schools -- gathered in front of the small memorial garden at the school's entrance. At the center is a small stone carved with Hoyer's name and the date of his death.

'A phenomenal teacher'

One student offered Phyllis Hoyer a sketch of the cypress tree dedicated to Hoyer. A teacher described the scholarship.

Amanda Berman, a graduating senior who said she has not been able to enter Room 234 -- Hoyer's old room -- since his death, read her college application essay chronicling the day Hoyer died.

"Even though our athletic director did [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] on him that day, it was all in vain," she said. "He died right there in front of everybody he touched and believed in."

Miguel Daal, a senior in Hoyer's biology class, attended the ceremony "because it was the right thing to do," he said. After graduation, the teen-ager headed to Brown University. He had been taking the Advanced Placement biology examination May 14 last year when 12 students, mostly girls, began the fight that preceded his teacher's death. He had gone to Hoyer's classroom to talk about the exam, he said, but he could not find his teacher.

"He was just a great teacher," Daal said. "A phenomenal teacher."

Wilde Lake, Columbia's first high school, was designed three decades ago to cater to students' individual needs. Rules were loose, creativity ran high and an unorthodox class schedule -- called supervised study -- allowed wide flexibility.

Some students, particularly those who were self-motivated, flourished.

Wilde Lake students routinely win prestigious awards in all subject areas -- one was a finalist in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search this year -- and the school's arts and speech programs often are nationally ranked.

But the free-spirited system doesn't work for all students. Wilde Lake has the lowest high school scores in Howard County on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. It is the only high school in the county that receives additional resources to help low-achieving students.

Increased discipline

A year ago, before Hoyer's death, some students said, the campus was tense. Smoke filled the bathrooms. Supervised study was widely abused. Students roamed the halls when they should have been in class. Fights were common.

For many, Hoyer's death confirmed that Wilde Lake needed a change.

Bonnie Daniel, the principal at the time of Hoyer's death, finished the school year before being transferred to Glenelg High School. Some, including schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, saw Plunkett as the perfect person to replace her.

A tough disciplinarian, Plunkett had run a tight ship at Columbia's Atholton High School before his arrival at Wilde Lake.

But change proved difficult.

This semester, Plunkett decreed that supervised study would be eliminated for ninth-graders and all other students not in honors courses. Many students and parents, afraid of losing Wilde Lake's tradition, cried foul.

After much discussion, the schedule will go into effect this fall much as Plunkett proposed it.

"This has been probably the most demanding year thus far in my career," Plunkett said. "It has had its rewards. It's been the whole change process. Transition management."

'Whole atmosphere is different'

Students -- friends and critics of Plunkett alike -- admit the campus has changed for the better.

Three sophomores involved in SAVE said as much this week:

"The whole atmosphere is different -- it's exciting," said Lizzie Richman.

"We are a lot more unified," added Maggie Douglas.

Said Liz Ketner, "The next day after [Hoyer] died, it was like the whole school had remorse. But it brought the whole school together."

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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