Baltimore city school officials are hoping to help students recover from the trauma of April's unrest with nearly $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Education designated for that purpose.
The district plans to use the funds from the Project School Emergency Response to Violence to hire more social workers and bolster professional development by training staff to help traumatized students.
The grant will be shared by five schools in West Baltimore that officials determined were most affected by the unrest: Frederick Douglass High School, Gilmor Elementary School, Matthew Henson Elementary School, William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle School and Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School.
When Baltimore students returned to school 48 hours after a night of rioting, the aftershocks were felt throughout the school district to the end of the school year. Attendance fell, suspensions skyrocketed, and hundreds of students withdrew, school officials wrote in their application for the grant.
The protests that turned violent over the death of Freddie Gray in April set the stage for 33 days of educational tumult for the city's school system.
From April 29 through June 15, the end of the school year, suspensions rose sharply and more than 200 students withdrew. Absenteeism also increased. Students didn't feel safe, and the teachers and staff were at a loss for how to help them overcome their fears and anxiety, school officials said.
"We have to work harder and do more to ensure that our students feel safe in their schools and communities," Ann Whalen, senior adviser to the U.S secretary of education, said in a statement. "As adults, it is our responsibility to help protect and nurture students, especially when tragic incidents occur that affect the school environment and impact the community in such a way that hinders learning. This grant will help the district move forward in restoring the learning environment."
"This grant is an important step in our continued support of students and staff through the healing process after the violence that shook our city last April," schools CEO Gregory Thornton said in a statement.
A summary of the district's grant proposal shed new light on the toll that the city's unrest took on the school district after the April 27 unrest that erupted following the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died of a spinal injury he sustained while in police custody.
"There were times when students did not feel comfortable coming to school due to anxiety, anger, fear of traveling through neighborhoods, and overall dissonance regarding what was being reported by the media about the students and community of Baltimore City," the grant summary said.
City officials also said school staff "were eager to support students as they returned to school, but often did not know how to appropriately lead conversations at the classroom, small group or individual level."
The five schools where the grant will provide at least a part-time counselor are located in West Baltimore neighborhoods that are connected to Gray, and where the long-standing tensions about poverty and police relations in the city have boiled over since his death.
"While the impact was felt by the entire community, the effect was even more significant on the schools located in the area nearest the incident with Mr. Gray and the subsequent unrest," school officials wrote.
Gray attended Matthew Henson Elementary School in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where he grew up and had visited there weeks before his death.
"I think this is a great start," said David Guzman, principal of Matthew Henson Elementary. "Sandtown-Winchester has many challenges, and it will take strategic long term planning to incite meaningful change. My hope is that our elected officials continue to consider our scholars, families & community."
Gilmor Elementary, also in Sandtown, serves students who live in Gilmor Homes where Gray often hung out and where he was arrested and last seen alive. It was also the starting point for weeks of protests that were planned after his death.
Frederick Douglass High School, located in Mondawmin, was regarded as the beginning of the rioting and looting that spread through West Baltimore after some protesters began throwing bricks at police officers who were stationed outside the school in protective and riot gear.
U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, who announced the grant, said he believes the April unrest was "particularly acute for our city schools," and that the events and the media coverage "shook many students' sense of security and diminished their faith in Baltimore's community."
"This grant funding is another positive step toward healing our city — one that will enable our schools to provide the kinds of social and psychological counseling that can help students feel safe again and that can encourage constructive conversations with students about the many social, economic and political issues facing our society," Sarbanes said.