Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

Dropped out, re-enrolled, set to graduate and then shot dead: A 19-year-old is mourned in Baltimore

Markel 'Kel' Scott had dropped out, returned to school, and was set to graduate. Then he was gunned down.

Excel Academy Principal Tammatha Woodhouse was in her office Friday morning when she heard "this howl down the hall, like this scream from somebody's gut."

A group of teachers preparing for a professional development day had just learned Markel "Kel" Scott — a 19-year-old senior who dropped out last year but returned in the fall with a contagious commitment to graduate — had been fatally shot in the head.

For months, Scott had been in his guidance counselor's office every day and in Woodhouse's office three times a week to make sure he was on track. He'd been taking night classes and obsessively completing make-up assignments, his teachers and family said. He'd filled his Facebook feed with words of self-encouragement, like "#NEVERGIVEUP."

Now he was dead.

"I lost it. I screamed," said Shelly Higgins, a health teacher who was particularly close to Scott.

"Not another one. Not him," she told Woodhouse. "Not another one. Not him."

At a time of intense violence in Baltimore, as police commanders and politicians argue over budgets and deployments, and corruption allegations mire the Police Department, this is the street-level reality:

People striving and struggling to beat the odds being gunned down in the street. Teachers on the front lines mourning young black men they'd hoped to see off to college.

In the last couple of years, death has come knocking more often, teachers said. Scott's death marked the fourth fatal shooting of an Excel Academy student since October.

On Oct. 16, 18-year-old Tre'Quan Bullock was fatally shot in the 1800 block of McKean Ave. The case remains open.

On Dec. 13, 18-year-old Lavar Douglas was fatally shot by a Coppin State University police officer after allegedly shooting up a car. Prosecutors ruled the officer's actions justified.

On Feb. 9, 18-year-old Bryant Beverly was chased into a home in the 300 block of Lyndhurst Ave. and then shot. He died a few days later. His case also remains open.

Scott was fatally shot in the 2700 block of E. Madison St., in the city's Madison Eastend neighborhood, where he used to live and still had friends.

Detectives told his mother, Sharonda Rhodes, that her son was shot in the face, neck, arm, leg and back, and that they don't have any leads in the case, she said. His friends told her he was trying to hail a hack cab to get home when the shots were fired. She believes his shooting was a case of mistaken identity.

"He wasn't robbing nobody. He wasn't selling any drugs," she said. "There were a lot of ways he could have went, but my son was determined to finish school."

"That's the thing that hurts more than anything else," Higgins said. "The simple fact that [he was killed] when he was on the right path, when he was doing everything he needed to do to make headway in life."

Rhodes said her mind has been reeling since Thursday night, when she drove to Johns Hopkins Hospital with the radio turned off and ditched her car near the emergency room entrance to rush inside. As she waited for doctors to tell her what she already knew, she turned inward and wrestled with God.

"Lord, are you serious? All this time I fought for my son? ... All these years I told him to stay off these corners because the streets don't love him?" Rhodes recalled thinking as she paced the room. "All this time I prayed? All this time I asked you to protect him? All this time? Are you serious my son is dead?"

Scott had gotten into a little trouble as a juvenile, but nothing serious, his mother said. As an adult, he received probation before judgment on one minor theft charge that she said was over something silly — an allegation that he had stolen a sucker from a convenience store.

Still, Scott had seemed lost last year, she acknowledged. Several of his friends from his old neighborhood had been killed. He didn't want to be in school and was hooking class, his mother and teachers said. Eventually he dropped out.

Rhodes, a mental health technician at Sheppard Pratt, said she was devastated. She had walked across the stage at her own high school graduation in 1997 pregnant with Markel, determined not to be another teenage mother who dropped out, she said.

But she saw her eldest son falling off the only path to success she saw for him.

Then, one morning in November, he roused her after she had just gone to bed after an overnight shift. He asked her for a ride to school. He had re-enrolled at Excel Academy, she said.

"Ma, I can't let you down. I can't let my brother and sister down. I'm getting this diploma," he told her. She beamed.

"He was just so different," Higgins said of Scott's return to Excel. "He had matured. He was more humble. He was more respectful."

Since then, Scott had been checking in with his guidance counselor every day, and with Woodhouse three times a week, making sure everything in his transcript lined up and that he was on track to graduate.

"He wanted to make sure there were no misunderstandings when it came to his credits," Woodhouse said. "He felt like this was something that he had to do to make him whole."

Scott's name was on lists in the hallway outside Woodhouse's office for seniors who had jobs lined up, and who had been accepted to college — in Scott's case, Baltimore City Community College. He also had plans to enlist in the Army, his mother said.

Last month, Rhodes stood on stage with her son at an "inauguration" event for the school's seniors and gave a speech in which she used her own story and her son's story to convey a simple message: "Keep pushing."

On March 10, in what would be Scott's last post on Facebook, he wrote about dropping out, then getting his "priorities straight" and re-enrolling: "I might have my days when I'm slacking but I will never quit again."

Last week, Higgins told Scott he had completed all of the work required to pass his health class. "I knew that it meant he was one step closer to graduation, and he just seemed so pensive and so happy in his quiet way," Higgins said.

On Monday, a crisis team was at the school to talk to students about Scott's death.

"Whether they knew Markel or not, it impacts them, and in that grieving stage, many of them think, 'Am I next? Am I going to live past 21?'" Woodhouse said.

On Tuesday, Woodhouse, Rhodes and Higgins all cried as they recalled Scott's dedication to graduating, and how close he had come to realizing his goal.

Excel Academy is a "place of redemption" where students get second chances, and Scott was one of those kids who was taking full advantage of that second chance, Woodhouse said.

"When they take that chance and they're progressing and they are moving toward a destiny and it's stolen from them by street violence, it's devastating," she said.

Rhodes said young people in Baltimore "don't value life" and think "it's easy to kill," and wishes they would think about the lives they are taking.

She cried as she read a "Gratitude Journal" that her son had written last month in Higgins' class.

"I am so fortunate to have a home, place to eat and a bed to lay in," he wrote. "I'm fortunate that I wasn't one of the young victims, a part of the death rate in my city."

"How can this be?" his mother said as she finished reading. "How can this be?"

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