Students and school officials testified yesterday that an attack on a Baltimore teacher that was captured on a cell phone camera and made national headlines was provoked by and might have even been started by the teacher.
A video of a portion of the attack was posted on the Internet and showed a teenage girl beating a woman lying on the floor while classmates cheered. The April 4 incident angered local officials and prompted concerns that teachers don't receive enough training in how to defuse potentially dangerous confrontations with students.
At a juvenile trial yesterday for the teenage girl charged in the incident, an art teacher at Reginald F. Lewis High School, Jolita Berry, reiterated in testimony what she has said in numerous interviews: The student instigated the fight.
But another version of the story emerged yesterday. Two classmates said that Berry was yelling obscenities at the student and told the girl that she knew martial arts. They said she pulled her hair back into a ponytail and wrapped a lanyard and keys around her fist, which the students interpreted to mean she was preparing to fight.
Neither student said that they saw who threw the first punch, but both said that Berry prevented the girl from freeing herself once the fracas broke out. One of them, a 17-year-old student who now attends the Lake Clifton high school complex, said Berry held the girl's head between her legs for a time.
"The clip [showed on the Internet] was only towards the end," she said. "The tape only showed [the girl] on top hitting [Berry], but it wasn't like that."
The school's then-principal and an administrator said that Berry acknowledged at the time that she threw the first punch after the student "got into her space."
"[The girl] got into her space, [Berry] pushed her, and the fight was on," said former Principal Jean Ragin, recounting what Berry told her after the incident.
A school counselor who observed Berry telling her side of the story to administrators described Berry as "very unprofessional."
"Ms. Berry was very upset, violently pacing back and forth. I heard her say that the student violated her space, so she pushed her to get her out of her space," the counselor testified. "She was very profane when talking about the incident."
The argument between teacher and student was apparently sparked by a radio kept in the classroom. Berry occasionally turned on a radio to stimulate the students' creativity, with the dial tuned to hip-hop stations. Prosecutors said the student attempted to turn the radio up, sparking a confrontation that led to the girl striking Berry with a closed fist.
School officials testified that the teenage girl, who is charged with battery in juvenile court, has had no previous disciplinary issues and was well-regarded as a student who went to class and stayed out of trouble.
"She was liked by her peers as well as the staff," Ragin said.
Part of the defense attorneys' presentation included discussion of Berry's skills as a teacher, calling witnesses who noted that she was on a teacher improvement plan and had a hall monitor specially assigned to stand outside her classroom door.
Willie James Holmes, a special education aide, said he had cautioned Berry about her use of strong language with the children and verbal sparring with them. He said she often talked down to the children as being from the ghetto and told them she would rather teach in a "white school."
"I told my mother, 'Something's gonna happen. Someone's gonna get hurt,' " Holmes testified.