At Frederick Douglass, principal pushed for order amid riots

Emails show interim principal at Frederick Douglass pushed for order amid city unrest.

Iona Spikes' Monday morning email opened with optimism. Among the events the interim principal highlighted for Frederick Douglass High School's staff the week of April 27 were a McCormick and Schmick's celebration for students and a Career and Trade School Fair.

The last item in her "This Week at Douglass" message was more ominous: a note warning teachers about the potential for walk-outs, sit-ins and protests on the day of Freddie Gray's funeral.

Still, she implored staff as the school day started, "Let's make it a GREAT WEEK!!!!"

By the time the school day ended, it was clear the week would be anything but.

The bright orange shirts of Douglass students stood out amid the police shields and tear gas that served as the backdrop for rioting that began at nearby Mondawmin Mall and spread to other parts of West Baltimore.

Suddenly, the 886-student school was seen as a focus for the unrest that reverberated throughout the city following Gray's death from injuries suffered in police custody.

Emails and documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request provide an insider's look at the tumult surrounding the historic school — and Spikes' feverish efforts to maintain order inside it.

One teacher acknowledged leaving school early on Monday after being "blindsided" by fear, according to an email obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request. In the days after the riots, some city school officials discouraged a visit from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who had criticized the "thugs" involved in the riots. Meanwhile, school district officials were generating lists of students who took part in the unrest.

But even as the city seemed to fall apart at its doorstep, Spikes, who has been interim principal for two years, exhorted the school community to stick together.

"Team: I realize that many of you were a bit anxious due to the situation in the community today. However, we're facing a crisis … we should truly be ALL HANDS ON DECK," she emailed her staff at 4:03 p.m. on April 27.

It was the official dismissal time, an hour into a violent standoff between students, community members and police. About 100 Douglass students had walked out of classes early, amid a planned melee at Mondawmin Mall, across the street. MTA bus service was suspended at Mondawmin, trapping hundreds of students from Douglass and other schools around the mall.

"Even with a mass exodus of students after 6th period, our work day continues," Spikes wrote.

Douglass, the second-oldest integrated school in the nation, boasts alumni such as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. But recent decades have been tumultuous.

In the 1990s, as the academic performance of its students worsened — and was highlighted in an HBO documentary — Douglass faced state takeover. In 2010, the district tried to pair the school with an outside operator, but couldn't find a good match.

The following year, Antonio Hurt took over as principal, and was credited locally and celebrated nationally for getting the school on solid footing. The graduation rate rose and suspensions plummeted, drawing U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former Attorney General Eric Holder to the school to debut national school discipline guidelines.

But the school community was devastated when, in 2014, Hurt was convicted of defrauding the federal government of nearly $2 million in his previous job as a day care operator.

In the months after Hurt's departure, Spikes, who had been a principal at William C. March Middle School before it closed and an administrator at Douglass, was named to lead the school.

Emails show that as Spikes met her test of leadership head on, city school officials were feeling the pressure to find a new principal for Douglass and were planning a nationwide search.

Patricia Rhodes, president emeritus of Frederick Douglass' Alumni Association, emailed schools CEO Gregory Thornton three days after the riots and asked for a timeline of the school's principal search. "As we wrestle with the current state of affairs in Baltimore City, it is imperative that a strong principal be selected to lead Frederick Douglass forward," she wrote.

Lisa Grillo, chief human capital officer for the district, asked for a meeting to discuss the request. "Agree that it should be a customized national search," she wrote to other Cabinet members, a point that was seconded by the district's chief academic officer.

In a statement, city school officials recently confirmed that a national search — a rare move — is underway. Officials said the position is also being advertised locally. They added that recruiting nationally would be an approach used more frequently by Thornton's administration.

In an interview, Rhodes said that the alumni association has been at the table for the principal search and is awaiting the district's decision.

She said she believed that Spikes was effective during the unrest, but the school's need for a strong leader is more about continuing progress than managing crises.

"In her position of leadership, that is the hand she was dealt and she did what she needed to do at that time," Rhodes said. "Douglass has been moving forward. The next principal who comes in should be ready to continue that forward movement, in spite of whatever is going on in Baltimore City."

Spikes, who earned a salary of about $121,000 last year, said in an interview that a national search for a new principal is the right move and should have been done immediately after Hurt left.

She said she applied for the job and would strongly consider accepting if she received an offer. She added that the last thing she was worried about was herself.

In an email sent the same day as Rhodes', Spikes indicated to staff that changes could be coming to Douglass over the summer, but encouraged them to focus on the present.

"What I know at this point in time is that I am not a giver-uper," she wrote. "I will not allow the challenges to outweigh the successes. What I know is that each of us has contributed something to the growth of Douglass which we can proud of."

'Putting kids first'

Reflecting recently on her leadership during the unrest, Spikes recalled using her iPad as a sounding board in the middle of the night and clearing her head in emails to those who mattered most: the staff.

"I don't even remember what I wrote," she said. "I just remember sending staff emails like every day and making sure they were putting kids first."

She credits her staff — in nearly every email she addressed them as "Team" — for getting the school through the turmoil.

"It could have been extremely stressful, but what I found comfort in really was the team — they stepped up," she said. "I remember coming home that whole week crying, praying and thanking God for them."

Still, the emails reveal some tension between Spikes and her staff. She sent a strongly worded email Monday after she discovered that some staffers left shortly after the students walked out.

"That is not okay!!!" she wrote, adding that those who left without permission would be charged a half-day's leave. "Abandoning your professional duties and responsibilities will not be tolerated."

Teachers wrote back with their apologies. One teacher confessed to being scared as a minority who was in a new city and new school.

The teacher, whose name was redacted by the school system, "couldn't shake the feeling of needing to fend for myself. I was completely blindsided by my own fears and didn't even consider anything but getting home as soon as possible. I apologize for my irrational behavior."

On April 28, the day after rioting left businesses destroyed, schools closed and a city stunned, Spikes expressed her understanding in a message to staff.

"Family, it has been a rough 30-plus hours. But as a team … I know all things are possible. Looking forward to another day of showing the world and ALL of the naysayers that we are worth it … our kids are worth it ... and we are committed to continuing this journey toward greatness."

Throughout the rest of the week, emails from Spikes, teachers and community supporters focused on their mission in the face of rumors, criticism and scrutiny generated by the involvement of Douglass students in the riots.

In the days after the school's students returned, many high-profile visitors, including Thornton, former Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis and rapper Wale, welcomed them back. Spikes reminded her staff to remember Douglass is "an institute of learning, and that is our primary focus."

"Team: I know I keep saying this … but once again, all eyes are on Douglass," Spikes wrote in an April 30 email. "The more people come in, the more we are under scrutiny. Don't let all your hard work be in vain."

Emails from outside of the school show that not everyone was sure Douglass could bounce back after the unrest.

Students and teachers were frustrated that they had been blamed for starting the riots. Though many students walked out, more than 700 stayed in class. An email from the schools police chief says two Douglass students were listed on the Baltimore Police Department's arrest report.

Documents obtained by The Sun also show that school leaders in more than a half-dozen schools across the city submitted names of students who participated.

Emails capture moments when Spikes realized Douglass students were involved. At 10:07 p.m. on April 27, she received an email that some of her students might be on CNN's video footage of the riots.

Two minutes later, Spikes wrote back: "Yup. That would be them ... hence, my stress and turmoil!"

And to those students, Spikes sent a strong message over the PA system the day students returned to school.

"I believe in all of you … it is the reason I am here," she said. "My heart is heavy! And to be honest, I am angry! The few students who made poor choices cast a dark cloud over Douglass."

Spikes added unapologetically that she was "snitching" — to parents and police — on students found to have participated in rioting, looting or violence.

She said she was most angry that her students passed up an opportunity to engage in productive social activism and express concerns in a valid way. "When your validity is removed, you're just a regular old Joe involved in a crime," she said.

In the message, she encouraged students to continue to vent their frustrations.

"Feel free to talk to your teacher or another staff member about what is on your heart," she said. "We would rather you talk about it, cry about it, curse about it amongst family who have your best interest at heart than turn up in the streets and get hurt or arrested."

Outside visitors

Emails at city school headquarters shed light on an internal conflict about how Douglass students should express themselves.

For example, a visit from Rawlings-Blake was discouraged, as officials worried about the reaction to her comment about "thugs" — a term she later backed away from.

On April 30, Hassan Charles, who heads the city school system's engagement and communications team, was informed that the mayor wanted to visit Douglass the following day.

The visit was discouraged by Ted Thompson, deputy chief academic officer, who suggested that she come the following week.

Charles said the mayor was pushing to "get there now."

"Douglass students feel some kind of way about the attention and very reactive towards mayor based on their interpretation of her comments," Thompson said. "They're being encouraged by some activist teachers. We need to push harder. It may not have the outcome folks may want."

Charles responded that he had communicated that sentiment, and officials proposed a format to avoid confrontation.

"If she must," Thompson wrote. "Be very selective of students. Keep teachers in classes. Keep it small: 20 students and a principal."

The meeting was ultimately canceled because the mayor needed to address the community after an announcement about the Gray investigation, emails show.

Kevin Harris, the mayor's spokesman, said in a statement Thursday that if the mayor had visited Douglass, she wouldn't have been interested in a filtered conversation.

"We would not have gone through with this visit," Harris said. "We weren't interested in hand-selected youth. Our goal was to hear directly the frustrations of our youth so that we could work together and develop a pathway forward."

When Duncan, the U.S. education secretary, wanted to return to Douglass to host roundtable discussions, the district's communications officer cited the school's recent past.

"If Mr. Duncan (or other Washington folks) do want to visit, I'm not sure about the optics of Douglass," school spokeswoman Anne Fullerton wrote in an email. "It's obviously the focal high school right now, but not sure how much we want to remind people of those hard-time days."

Despite those concerns, Duncan visited the school on May 6; his office declined to comment about emails related to the visit.

Other events, such as the Career and Trade School Fair, were rescheduled.

Spikes said if there is one thing she wants people to know about Douglass in the aftermath of the unrest, it's that "we had a challenge and we overcame it."

She also wants people to realize that one of her students became president of the city's student government association this year. And 88 percent of the Class of 2015 graduated in four years.

More importantly, she wants those — including the news media and officials — who showed up during upheaval to be there when the dust settles.

"I just want people to genuinely care about my babies," she said. "And when you come out, come out all the time."

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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