Woodlawn High School ninth-graders who gathered yesterday for an assembly on anger management instead got an up-close lesson in violence, when a shoving match grew into a melee that led to two arrests - including one student's mother - and 11 suspensions.
As students on stage acted out peaceful ways to resolve conflict, one student's mother confronted a group of girls who had been bothering her child, authorities said.
Screaming quickly escalated into pushing and hitting, and school officials dialed 911 as the crowd of 750 students erupted into "chaos," said Woodlawn Principal C. Anthony Thompson.
Students stood on their auditorium seats and rushed toward the fighting girls to get a better look, one student said, and soon other fights were breaking out in the auditorium.
"Tempers were heightened, and there was definitely tension in the air," said ninth-grader Melissa Parks. "People were climbing over seats and started fighting about stupid stuff."
She said the facilitator presenting the assembly, organized by Sheppard Pratt Health System, seemed frustrated by the fighting and started yelling for people to stop. Sheppard Pratt officials, who offer conflict resolution programs to local schools, could not be reached yesterday.
All Baltimore County schools - and many schools throughout the region - participate in such programs, school officials said.
"Unfortunately, that original incident at the assembly became the catalyst for other fights," said Douglas J. Neilson, a spokesman for Baltimore County schools. "It was handled quickly and effectively by the school administration."
It took about 15 minutes to defuse yesterday's situation, Thompson said. But officials canceled after-school activities at Woodlawn and kept students in their classes until about 10:50 a.m., about an hour after the incident began.
Woodlawn High sits on a 65-acre campus just east of the Baltimore Beltway near Security Square Mall.
The 1,900-student school has been trying to revamp its image in recent years.
Last year, 10 people were arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer and disorderly conduct during an evening fashion show at the high school.
"Something like this just puts us back to the starting point," Thompson said of yesterday's fighting.
When Thompson became principal in 2001, he faced a school where students' SAT scores were below the county average of 1037.
In 2002, the school population included an estimated 60 gang members and 200 students from group homes, many with discipline problems.
And Woodlawn has in the past lost top students to magnet programs at other schools, while its engineering magnet program, established to attract talented students from elsewhere, has typically been underused.
Neilson said that while yesterday's incident did have "extenuating circumstances," fights between students are common to all schools.
Earlier this year, two Severn teen-agers were arrested and charged with second-degree assault and causing a disruption after a fight broke out at Meade High School in Anne Arundel County.
"The whole reason we hold conflict management in schools is because young people have this angst built up in them, and it's easy for them to go off inappropriately," he said.
County police officers who responded to yesterday's brawl arrested a 33-year-old woman and her daughter, said Officer Shawn Vinson, a spokesman for the police department.
The mother, who was not identified last night because she had not been before a commissioner, was to be charged with trespassing and disrupting school activities, Vinson said.
The teen-age daughter, who was not identified because she is a minor, was to be charged with second-degree assault, he said.
Police said the mother had apparently walked into an open auditorium door, bypassing school security, the principal said.
The mother did not become involved in the physical fight but did exchange words with some of the girls, police said.
Thompson said some of the 11 suspended students might be recommended for expulsion.
Sun staff writer Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.