Shortly after the fourth teen-ager from Northern High was slain this year, Principal Alice Morgan-Brown took to the school's closed-circuit television to play counselor.
She thought her words and image might inspire calm among the school's shaken students. Maybe a little hope, too.
Brown told her students about morals and choices. She appealed to them to use their belief in a higher power -- God, Allah or whomever they worshiped -- to help them make good decisions and see them through the bad ones.
She talked to them about strength in the face of adversity.
She told them about conscience.
When Brown's visage disappeared from the screen in Linda Marion's homeroom, a young man sitting in back stood and approached his teacher.
With three words, he captured the challenge facing everyone who works to make Northern a better place.
"What's a conscience?" he asked.
Brown was rattled, if not surprised. "I don't think that tells you about all of our children," she said when she heard about the student's question. "But it does give you an idea of how deep some of the things we're dealing with are."
Coping. Look past the steady stream of headlines and controversy that flowed from Northern this school year, and that's what you'll find in the school's cavernous corridors.
You won't discover students tearing the place apart while teachers and administrators cower -- though that was the inevitable assumption after Brown suspended two-thirds of her students last fall and booted 50 more for good in January.
Instead, what you find is a school in which everyone is grappling with a tapestry of issues that are more complex, and subtle.
Everyone is just trying to get by.
Students etch gravestones into desktops and fill notebook pages with names of fallen friends -- all to deal with the deaths that surround their lives.
Teachers plug away, arriving as early as 6: 30 each morning, while as many as half of their students never show for classes and others seem to sleepwalk through them.
And sadly -- shockingly, perhaps -- some of the teen-agers at Northern must confront weighty adult issues without even a child's idea of what a conscience is.
Look in the right places, and you'll also find hidden gems at Northern.
Honor students peer through microscopes at DNA strands in the bio-technology lab and toil over advanced math in the distance-learning lab.
Top-notch career and college prep programs attract children from all over the city. The school's sports teams have been revitalized, and its renowned gospel choir booms with angelic voices.
But even the school's best students must adapt to survive. They dodge the rowdy cafeteria and walk through the halls in groups to avoid trouble. Some have burly friends or relatives meet them at school to escort them home each day.
They cope, too -- even if it's coping to thrive.
The question for Brown, the school's often-criticized leader, may be whether coping is good enough for one of the city's largest high schools.
Would Northern be a better place, a more productive school for its 1,800 students, under different leadership?
"I'd be silly to sit here and say there isn't somebody, somewhere, who could do this job better than I can," Brown says.
"But that's not my decision to make. I'm not the one who has to answer that question."
The school system may soon answer it for her. About 15 principals are likely to be removed this year for poor performance, and many believe Brown's name is on the list.
She is not sitting around, though, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"I can't control what happens to me," she says. "I can just keep doing what I think needs to be done in this school.
"We've come a long way, actually, but people just don't know it."
If Brown had her way, people would know two things about her school: what it was like when she got there three years ago, and what changes she has made since then.
They wouldn't ignore the challenges she still faces. But they'd understand -- and respect -- the way she chooses to deal with them.
As she walks the halls of her school, a walkie-talkie in hand and a stern look on her face, the 31-year educator must make on-the-spot decisions that reflect her complicated role.
In the hallways, she finds one of her greatest challenges: students who don't go to class. Brown spends hours each day with her cadre of black-shirted security guards "sweeping" the building's perimeter and its corridors, rounding up students. At times, the hallways seem more crowded with students than the classrooms.
Brown knows the constant hall activity is the first, surest sign of a school out of control. And she knows her school must look a mess to visitors.
But Brown also believes there is important context behind the appearances that can't be ignored.
"Are there students in the hallways? Absolutely, there are," Brown admits. "But are there as many as there were when I got here, and are they doing the same things? Absolutely not."
Dealing with issues
Moreover, Brown knows some of the students she approaches in the hallways require deft handling that might not be obvious.
"You've got to know when to be stern with these students, and you've got to know when to back off," she says. "Some of these children are dealing with issues that explain their behavior, and if you don't know that when you confront them, you could be asking for trouble."
Brown finds a small girl hiding in a third-floor stairwell and asks why she's not in class.
The girl floats a story about going to the lunchroom to find her coat, but it's obviously a lie. She has no real excuse. She's busted.
"Get back to class right now," Brown warns. "I don't want to catch you out here again."
She lets the girl go. She doesn't follow up with detention. No call home. Why not?
"Three weeks ago, I found that girl in the hallways and when I went up to her, she cursed me out like you've never heard," Brown says. "I had to call her parents up here and put her out for a while.
"Since then, we've been working with her and her anger, and trying to get her to deal with it better. Today, what did she do when I went up to her? She responded, and she went to class."
Her point is clear: The girl wasn't in class, but she wasn't raising a ruckus, either. You take progress where you can get it.
Brown turns her attention to a young man who security has caught hanging out on the second floor.
"Didn't I just talk to you?" Brown asks. "I told you 10 minutes ago to get to class."
The young man smiles demurely, and says he was on his way when security rousted him.
"Don't lie to me. Just don't," Brown says. "I ought to call your parents."
Again, though, she doesn't. She just tells the security guard to get him to class.
"I had him in my office, talking to him about Burnell McClain. He lives in the same neighborhood as Burnell, and I think he might know something about what happened," she says.
"If I broke him down out here in front of that security guard, he'd see it as disrespect. You can't do that with these children. He'd never tell me what he knows."
McClain was slain in late April, joining three other current or former Northern students who were killed this school year. Brown says students in the school have been understandably shaken by the killings, and their reactions vary.
Some children wander the halls because they don't know what else to do. Other children react outwardly, sometimes violently.
The response to McClain's death was particularly pointed. He was a solid student who didn't get involved in the trouble that follows some other students.
His death, and the fact that his killers left him naked a few blocks from home, particularly offended her students' sensibilities. McClain's killing has yet to be solved.
"There's just a lot more going on here than you might know if you just walked in and saw it," Brown explains.
Brown is not easy on everyone she finds in the halls. Some students are openly defiant, wearing baseball hats or stockings on their heads, or carrying blaring radios.
Or, as happened last November, large groups of students will decide to challenge Brown's authority.
She comes down on them hard, sending them to detention or calling their parents. In November, she issued mass suspensions to 1,200 students who had disobeyed her.
"There are times when you just have to meet the behavior with a response, and you can't think about why it's happening," she explains.
Brown is also quick to point out how different the hallways are from when she arrived three years ago.
Assaults were not uncommon. Neither were thefts and vandalism. Locker fires and false fire alarms use to be pretty routine.
In her first two years in the school, a student was wounded by gunfire in a hallway and a 14-year-old girl was raped in a school restroom.
Things are better now. Crime is down in the school and most of the students wandering the hallways are harmless, even if they are still aimless. Virtually everyone agrees that Brown's removal of 50 of the most disruptive students has had a huge impact.
But is the progress enough, and are Brown's explanations for the problems that remain just a cop-out? The school still doesn't graduate most of the students who begin. Ninth-grade functional test scores remain among the lowest in the city.
"I could clear the halls any day I wanted to. I could clear it with police and dogs, if I had to," Brown insists. "But what will I really have accomplished?
"I'm trying to change the culture in this school, so that children won't want to be in the halls. That's harder to do."
In some quarters of the school, there are great contrasts to the hallway troubles that suggest Brown's attempts to change the culture are having some effect.
Last fall, the academy concept debuted at Northern, so students now take courses that focus on business, environmental sciences, humanities or human services. The academies -- which demand different scheduling requirements than a regular curriculum -- made for a logistical nightmare at the beginning of the year.
But they have since created a much smaller environment for students -- something everyone admits they needed. Each of Brown's four assistant principals has responsibility for one academy. They know all of their children and can deal with them individually.
In Room 139, the bio-technology lab, Donovan Price and his comrades have crafted a world that most people might not expect to find at Northern. They peer through microscopes at DNA strands they've isolated. They use such words as "electrophoresis" and handle pipettes as easily as most children their age deal with pencils.
"People at my church and in my neighborhood laugh when I tell them I go to Northern," Price says. "I just tell them the school isn't what they think it is.
"I like it here. I wouldn't be anywhere else."
Price and about 65 other Northern students are part of a program designed to prepare students for careers as teachers.
They take high-level math, science and English courses that you'd find in the best suburban schools. They compete with -- and beat -- students from around the country at the annual Future Teachers of America convention.
"My students are as competitive as children you'd find anywhere," says Pearl McCready, the teacher who started the program, who hand-picks the children each year from Baltimore middle schools and watches over them like a mother.
Most days after school, you can find Price and the others in McCready's lab, working on projects or just experimenting. Theirs is one of two honors programs at Northern, one of three city-wide magnets that attract children from all over Baltimore. In all, about 300 students participate in the programs, and Brown hopes to expand them.
"Four years ago, these didn't exist," Brown says proudly. "I don't know how anyone can say we're not doing anything here."
But Brown knows that life for her best students isn't completely insulated from the rest of the school's ills. They dodge the school's cafeteria because it's so rowdy. They stick together in the hallways.
Brown also knows that for every student in her school like Donovan Price, there is one like the young man who was thrown by her talk about conscience.
The depth of that student's misunderstanding and despair represents everything she -- or whoever has her job -- must fight.
The young man's teacher, Linda Marion, tried to explain the idea of conscience to the boy after he asked. When she was finished, he paused, and asked yet another disturbing question:
"Why should that matter, when things like what happened to Burnell happen anyway?"
Pub Date: 6/14/98