'Do I feel safe in the school? No.'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's more than a quarter of the way through Alicia Lee's junior year in high school, and she's trying to stay focused.

Her dream of becoming a teacher is riding as much on controlling her fears as on her ability to conquer a heavy course load of physics, biology and accounting.

Because of a string of violent incidents at Baltimore City public schools since the beginning of this academic year - shootings, fires in classrooms, fights broken up by school officers firing pepper spray into combatants' faces - students such as Alicia worry that they might find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Do I feel safe in the school? No," says Alicia, an 11th-grader at Reginald F. Lewis High School of Business and Law. "Anything can happen."

Not all Baltimore schools record violence every day. But across the system, such incidents are becoming more frequent than just a year ago. Mayor Martin O'Malley conceded in a private e-mail to his police commissioner this fall that schools are "out of control."

Parents, school officials and experts blame the violence on the dilapidated condition of city school buildings, as well as recent budget cuts to staff, resources and security personnel.

The latest statistics for this academic year show that the number of serious incidents reported at all city schools during the months of September and October rose 40 percent over the same period last year.

Topping the list were fires and false alarms, which more than tripled from 21 in fall last year to 68 this year. Assaults jumped almost 23 percent, from 127 incidents last year to 156 this year.

It's all making the already troubled facilities - where water fountains are draped with plastic and guarded with "Do Not Drink" signs, and where on some days heat and electricity are almost luxuries - even more unsettling.

"We know that deteriorating school conditions are linked with more violent activity in schools," said William Lassiter of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, in Raleigh, N.C.

After problems arose at her daughter's school last month, Crystal Wilson - Alicia's mother and the vice president of the Reginald F. Lewis PTSA - complained to the city school board about almost a dozen problems with resources and conditions at the school that she found "unacceptable and potentially dangerous."

"Throughout the building you will find exposed wiring, missing and broken windows, doors that do not lock and/or are missing handles, non-functioning security cameras and monitors, as well as a host of other related problems," she said.

Reginald Lewis is among the 20 schools with the highest number of serious incidents this year. It is one of two high schools created two years ago from the old Northern High. The other, W.E.B. Dubois, is separated from its sister school by locked gates and walls.

Together the schools have 1,500 students. About 650 attend Reginald Lewis, where Alicia, 16, is enrolled.

Long school day

Alicia's school day begins at 8:30 each morning at her bus stop and ends at 6:30 p.m. after night school ("Twilight," as it is called). The evening classes are the only way she can complete some of her academic schedule because several courses during the day - including math classes - have been canceled for lack of teachers.

She catches a city bus just outside her townhouse complex in Northeast Baltimore along with several other students. Every seat is quickly filled, and those who stand form a tight group in the aisle.

Despite the close quarters on the roughly 15-minute ride from Alicia's bus stop to school, the students remain calm, with their voices at almost a whisper - except for occasional language that Maryland Transit Administration bus driver Dracy Davis doesn't want to hear.

"B--!" a boy shouts out en route to Reginald Lewis on a chilly Thursday morning.

"Yo!" Davis replies. "Cool it with that language, dog."

Voices return to almost a whisper as the bus winds its way to Reginald Lewis.

Davis, an eight-year MTA bus driver, has driven city students to school for the past two years. He says he keeps his bus under control through constant interaction with students:

"The reason my bus is the way it is, is because I speak to them every day. Usually it's pretty calm. I think it depends on how you relate to the kids."

But there's always a quiet tension that keeps Alicia on guard and often to herself, on the bus and in school.

"I just know that it can break out anytime," she says of troubles at the school. "I know a fire can be set at anytime. Then I cannot get done what I need to get done."

School officials sent students and teachers at Reginald Lewis home early twice last month after arsons Oct. 20 and 21.

The incidents angered faculty trying to teach and students hoping to learn.

Yet the Reginald Lewis fires produced barely a ripple among city school system administrators - for they were far less serious than what was going on elsewhere.

At the same time as the Oct. 20 incident, arsonists set five other fires at Highlandtown Middle School in East Baltimore, and at Northwestern and Forest Park high schools in the northwest.

And two teens were wounded outside Thurgood Marshall High School just after class dismissal Oct. 21. That incident followed a single gunshot a month earlier at Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy during a fire evacuation. No one was injured at Walbrook.

Parents and school officials attribute the spike in violence to drastic spending cuts last year that were intended to close a $58 million budget deficit. They believe those cuts left the schools short-staffed and increasingly vulnerable.

Schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland acknowledged last month that she and the school board eliminated too many school police and support staff jobs, as the board approved an emergency plan to spend $1.5 million to hire dozens more hall monitors and resource officers, fix faulty door locks and lights, and provide cell phones and walkie-talkies for administrators at 15 schools labeled as "high need."

In addition to the extra spending, Copeland said, the system has opened its doors to churches, businesses and community groups willing to help boost the presence of adults in schools. And school officials are renewing their efforts to hire certified teachers to replace substitutes, "who may not have, in some instances, the best control of a class," she said.

"It's a myriad of plans that are coming together," Copeland said.

Principal Federico Adams, in his first year as Reginald Lewis' chief administrator, meets students at the front door each morning. He carries his new walkie-talkie and cellular phone to stay in touch with his staff and security personnel in case anything happens.

As an added measure, Adams summons his administrative team to his conference room at 9:30 each morning to assess the issues of the day, including concerns about safety and security and problems with the school's physical plant.

On this Thursday morning, Alicia is in her almost two-hour accounting class when Adams sits down with his administrative team to share the news that the boiler room has flooded.

The water in the room is 10 feet deep. And oil from the boiler is mixing with the water, spreading sinus-irritating fumes throughout the school.

Worse, the problem triggers the school's fire alarm and cuts off electricity to scattered areas of the building.

No heat throughout the building. No light in the gym or in several hallways, classrooms and offices.

Adams decides to cut power to the fire alarm to stop it from ringing. If anyone sets a fire today, the new walkie-talkies, cellular phones and word of mouth will have to signal students and teachers to flee.

'Can you feed them?'

Adams wants to close the school, but he doesn't have the authority. That power rests with the school headquarters on North Avenue, and officials there have just one question: "Can you feed them?"

"Their one question to me is, 'Can they eat?'" Adams says as he shakes his head.

There is power in the cafeteria, and the two workers who serve lunch to all of the campus' 1,500 students - many of whom do not eat the lunch because they say it's cold or "nasty" - are ready.

So Reginald Lewis stays open, even as the temperature drops in the building and the only light in parts of the school comes from the sun shining through the windows.

It seems a recipe for Adams and his team to lose control of their school - and Adams wants to make sure that doesn't happen.

"We know we're not going to have heat today. We may not have power tomorrow," Adams says to the four members of his administrative team. "We're not going to tell the students."

But the students already know. They can smell the oil, and they can feel the cold. They only have to open their eyes to see the dark gymnasium and the dim hallways.

"You get used to it," says Alicia, adding that she's more concerned about safety than problems with the school's power and heat, which often fade. The students "say, 'It's cold.' They know we don't have no heat, so that's all they can say."

Artrice Baker, Alicia's accounting teacher, stops in the office to confirm the reports from students about the flooding and electricity.

"The kids were telling me about the water," Baker says to a secretary in the office. "They were in the gym and the lights went out."

The look on Baker's face seems to say that she has become resigned to the conditions of this learning environment. "My room stays cold," she says.

It would all be a little easier, Baker says, if only she had software on the computers in her classroom to teach the students modern accounting. At least then, she says, she would feel she was helping them get the education they deserve, despite the concerns about safety and the building conditions.

"When I started here, I didn't even have books to use," Baker says. "I had to go back to my old school and get the accounting books from there."

Visibly exasperated, she says, "I'm retiring soon."

Adams takes a stroll through the building to review the problems from the boiler breakdown and consider measures to ensure that students remain calm and comfortable.

"We have no power. We have no heat, but the children aren't in the halls," Adams says. "One thing you don't see is the kids out of control. They're so used to this crap."

Most students citywide have grown used to decrepit schools.

More than three-fourths of the city's schools are in poor physical condition, according to a study commissioned a few years ago by the system. School officials estimate that it would cost more than $1 billion to correct structural problems and build educational necessities such as science labs - the cost of years of neglect and lack of funding.

If the violence and safety issues are going to be resolved, says Lassiter of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, it must begin with repairing the facilities.

"Everything from gang prevention to bullying prevention states that you have to create a positive, warm environment," Lassiter said. "If it's a decrepit school, the students get the message that it's OK not to act appropriately, because the school's not even in appropriate shape."

At Reginald Lewis, the halls are kept clean and in decent order. But they can get loud sometimes, even when classes are in session.

It doesn't help that the school bell - used to signal the start and end of class periods - doesn't always work quite right.

"It doesn't ring all the time," Alicia says. Asked how they know when classes change, she smiles with a look that suggests this, too, is just another part of life in city schools.

The hallways never seem far out of control. As in almost any high school, there is the impromptu wrestling match between a couple of boys who are laughing and joking; there are curse words shouted in the hallways.

But no fires or major fights this week.

Still, Adams makes it clear that he wants students out of the halls during class time. And he has identified part of the problem.

A school security officer is fraternizing with the students and not sending them to class.

Adams picks up the phone and tells a school security supervisor: "We have a situation that needs to be addressed. You have an officer, I think his name is Mike. I don't know his last name. He's got to go."

Like a sheriff trying to clean up a small, troubled town, Adams has been cracking down at Reginald Lewis. Students are required to wear uniforms of khaki pants with white tops for underclassmen and yellow tops for seniors.

Some students, such as Mylea Holman, one of Alicia's classmates in afternoon physics, say that it has been Adams' push for more control that led a handful of students to cause trouble this year.

"Mr. Adams is trying to implement discipline, and some students are rebelling," says Mylea, who serves as the student representative to the PTSA, of which Alicia's mother is vice president. "That's what the fires are all about."

Troubles and all, Alicia, Mylea and many of their classmates continue to plow through such problems as the change in velocity and the rate of a falling object due to gravity. They stand at the chalk board working through the equations as if nothing at all is going on around them.

When Alicia arrives at her physical education class, the gym is shrouded in darkness because of the loss of power. Daylight is fading, but the students still can see most things around the gym, at least in silhouette. (The locker rooms are pitch-black, which means they can't change for any sweaty athletic games today.)

One day at a time

Ken Smith, physical education teacher and coach, pulls out a CD player and organizes the students for a dimly lit disco.

The music begins blaring, "It's electric. ... " It's time for the Electric Slide. What else is there to do in a dark, cold gymnasium?

Smith, an almost 30-year educator in the city school system, had awakened that morning excited about another chance to teach, until he had to face the troubles in the building, again.

"I was like, 'Thank you, God. One more day,'" Smith says he declared in his private morning prayers. "And then there's no lights."

The problems with the building have long troubled Smith because he believes the environment is hindering the students from reaching their potential.

"I enjoy teaching," Smith says. "Our kids are good. They just need love. I get on my knees every day and ask God to help me."

By the close of Alicia's daytime classes, environmental experts and the school system's facilities team are working to pump the oil and water out of the boiler room.

Alicia walks to her evening biology class, which begins at 4 p.m.

The commotion and noise in the hallways mask an announcement that Twilight is canceled today because all of the school's power will be turned off to make repairs.

At just about 4 p.m., all of the afternoon buses have gone. Alicia's mother tells her to take a cab home.

She waits in the chilly air outside the school for about an hour with several other students. And her mother is furious about it all.

"You expect our future leaders to come out of this?" says Wilson. "Any environment that's not a good environment can break anybody's spirit.

"The condition of the school overall, to me, is below standards. Why should the kids care if the adults who can kind of resolve this, they don't care? I think that it is really a travesty that no one seems to be listening to what is going on in these schools."

Sun staff writers Liz Bowie and Laura Loh contributed to this article.

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