Student says speaking up got her in trouble

The Baltimore Sun

Here's a fact: Chante Bonner, 16, spoke out at a public forum on school safety and charged that the police officer assigned to Western High School sat at her desk instead of patrolling the halls.

Here's the allegation: Her father called me on Friday and accused the school's principal of yanking Chante out of class the day after her comments appeared in my column and scolding her for making Western look bad.

Here's the denial from Principal Eleanor P. Matthews: "I did not, and I'm not going to address it anymore."

Here's the response from her top boss, schools chief Andres Alonso: "Clearly, any treatment by adults that unfairly targets a child because she is speaking openly about issues or perceptions of issues at a school [is] troubling to me. It would be inappropriate of me to assume that this has happened without more information."

That's how this back-and-forth ended on Friday.

No clear answers. No real denial either.

Matthews refused to say anything beyond her 11 words.

Is she denying taking Chante out of class, or denying dressing her down for speaking out, or both? Did she say anything to the child? The school system won't say whether the principal did or did not confront the student. They do say, in no uncertain terms, that to do so would be wrong.

"I think of the forum we had as a safe zone for young people to share information," Jonathan T. Brice, director of student support for the school system, told me.

"Obviously, they're not going to be willing to do that if they believe there is going to be any kind of reprisal or condemnation on the part of the school staff. If this indeed happened, it clearly will not continue to happen."

There's a certain irony in that the media goes to forums like the one Chante attended to learn and report what real people think, and when those thoughts appear in the media the people who dared speak them get vilified. Open debate is only appreciated when it's done behind closed doors.

I'm not going to pretend I know what happened between Chante and her principal. I ran into Chante after her comments had been published and she told me the same story her father told me on Friday. At that time, she didn't want to go public, fearing it would cause even more trouble. Her father unexpectedly called me seeking publicity.

"I don't believe that is the right thing to do to a child," Charles Bonner told me. "The answer she gave was off the top of her head. She wasn't trying to get anyone in trouble. She gave an honest answer. The police officers aren't visible. The principal told her she made Western look bad, that she was lucky to be in a good school."

He told me Chante is a good student who wants to go to college but hasn't settled on a major yet. He said that the day after the lecture, she complained of a stomachache and stayed home sick.

"She's an outgoing girl," her father said. "This sort of thing makes her go into a shell. It stymies discussion."

The event Chante spoke at wasn't a casual get-together.

Chante has been identified as an up-and-coming leader by a group called Community Law in Action. She and other students had been invited to an early January forum on youth and crime titled "Community Engagement: Ideas for the Future."

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy sponsored the event and invited the media to attend. Other dignitaries included Donald W. DeVore, secretary of Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services, Marshall "Toby" Goodwin, the schools police chief, and Brice.

They encouraged and prodded reluctant students to tell the unvarnished truth. And Chante wasn't speaking to me. She was answering a question from the school police chief.

One student explained how he shunned his brother, a drug dealer and gang leader, and stayed in school and off the streets. Another said he was bored with his classes. A third chastised parents for not caring. A fourth said he's lost interest in school and stopped coming even though he's six months from graduating. Chante said the police officer at her school doesn't do her job.

Jessamy, DeVore, Brice and Goodwin didn't just speak and leave. They stayed for hours, led discussion groups and talked privately with the kids. Afterward they admitted some of their own thoughts had been wrong. Said Jessamy: "We have to reassess how we sell our schools to our kids."

The teenagers actually felt someone had listened to them. It was encouraging.

Then you hear Chante's story and you start to wonder. A few months ago I spoke at a class at the Homeland Security Academy in Northwest Baltimore. I wrote about my experiences and the students heard back from officials that what they said and what I wrote was not appreciated.

I had read letters they wrote to the city's mayor and the country's incoming president, painting a raw look at inner-city life. I noted their complaints about the school, poor security and general chaos. School officials were unhappy, but the students got to meet with the mayor at City Hall.

Goodwin, the schools police chief, told me he investigated Chante's allegation and determined it to be unfounded. School officers don't always patrol the hallways; they sometimes have paperwork. And Western is considered one of the better schools, both for academics and safety.

It should go without saying that chiding a child for speaking out is wrong, sends a bad message and makes a mockery of encouraging debate. It would be worse if an impressionable student were encouraged to speak out by top city officials one day and reprimanded for doing it the next.

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