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How Baltimore schools became aware of 'purge' threat on day of unrest

Emails show city schools were given little notice to delay dismissal on day of unrest

In the wee hours of April 26, Cody Dorsey, a recent graduate of Digital Harbor High School, foresaw that the school week could open in chaos.

At 12:49 a.m. Sunday, the former student commissioner on the city school board wrote to city schools CEO Gregory Thornton and his chief of staff Naomi Gubernick, imploring them to consider closing schools Monday, after disturbances downtown over the weekend.

"In light of recent events in our city, it is my sincere belief that closing schools should be considered," Dorsey wrote. "In addition, Freddie Gray's funeral will be held on Monday. After recent protests we have to kept the safety of City Schools' students in mind as they travel to and from school."

This was one of the first messages, and signs of the trouble that would come, as the city would fall into rioting and looting Monday afternoon. The Baltimore Sun reviewed nearly 1,000 emails and other correspondence from more than one dozen school officials between April 26 to May 2.

Dorsey's message was sent nearly 12 hours before the first notice of the 3 p.m. "purge" — a reference to a movie in which crime is made legal — at Mondawmin Mall reached city schools headquarters at North Avenue. At 12:23 p.m., the flier dropped into the inbox of Maj. Akil Hamm, deputy chief of the Baltimore City School Police Force.

"The flier has been circulating on social media and I believe it to be creditable [sic]," wrote Joe Orenstein of the Baltimore City Police Department. "If you could, please have the officer who reports to the Watch Center (Unified Command) briefed and knowledgeable about what has been occurring in schools Monday."

From there, emails detailing lists of schools and their close proximity to Freddie Gray's funeral, crisis plans and talking points for educators to help students through trauma began to bounce back and forth between school officers.

Plans were also firmed up for the mayor to speak to a group of Gilmor Elementary School students before heading to Gray's funeral.

The next morning, it was still unclear whether the planned "purge" would happen, though rumors had been swirling that a group of students from Frederick Douglass High School —located directly across the street from Mondawmin — were planning to walk out at 3 p.m.

School police had also devised a plan — five officers and two detectives would be stationed at Mondawmin Mall, with two officers stationed at schools in the area.

Douglass' principal, Iona Spikes, sent an email at 7:56 a.m. to her staff, asking for "all hands on deck" and for staff to be "on point."

Media calls began to grow by 9:11, according to a school communications staff member, not just about a planned purge, but also a shooting threat at City College.

By 11:15 a.m., city schools Police Chief Marshall Goodwin was fielding emails from City Hall.

One came from a staffer in City Council President Bernard "C" Jack Young's office, asking, "Do you think it's actually going to happen?"

"Unsure," Goodwin responded. "We have many rumors at this time. Some have not happened thus far today."

At 1:34 p.m., Fred Damron from the Maryland Transit Administration emailed Hamm, asking if the district could delay bell times to decrease traffic at Mondawmin Mall, which serves as a major bus hub for students.

"That's a big ask," Hamm wrote. "I'll check with my higher-ups."

Follow-up interviews indicated that such a request came within an hour of when 99 schools were due to dismiss.

Schools CEO Thornton said in a recent interview that such a request was nearly impossible to fulfill.

"We basically said: We can't turn it in 40 minutes," Thornton said. "We can't get kids ready to go home, notify parents, and ensure their transition home."

Eight minutes after the request, the first concerns about transportation came from a school official, saying that the MTA No. 22 bus, the primary mode of transportation for students from Reach Academy, wasn't running.

School officials did not realize that transportation at the Mondawmin hub — where more than 5,000 students transfer per day — had been halted.

In communications with school system officials, Goodwin said, "The decision to shut down the Mondawmin Mall HUB was made by MTA officials without any notification to city schools."

MTA officials said the request to shut down the hub came from city police. City police have referred all questions about the hub shutdown to the MTA.

Thornton says he was in key meetings with the mayor and governor but he was "completely caught off guard" by the decision to shut down the buses on Monday.

Asked his thoughts on the decision to shut down the bus service at Mondawmin, he said: "It's not my decision with regard to city strategies."

The unrest at Mondawmin began at 2:46 p.m.

"Douglass just walked out," Hamm wrote.

At 2:53 p.m., an update came from Mondawmin, where Goodwin informed city school officials that 100 students, as well as adults, were protesting at the mall. They were chanting, "Hands up, don't shoot."

"We have given our team clear instructions to NOT engage," Goodwin wrote. "However, right now, the crowd is throwing rocks and bottles. The crowd is moving toward a 7-11 store down the street from the mall."

Moments later, Goodwin wrote, students were diverted from the 7-11 store back to the mall.

A timeline of events compiled by city school police outlines how at about 5 p.m., a corporal was ambushed by protesters while he sat in the departmental vehicle.

Suspects threw rocks at the officer, broke the driver- and rear driver-side window and assaulted him with rocks. The officer was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center and later released.

The timeline ends at 5:30 p.m., when officials said the crowd was pushed out of the Mondawmin area by city police.

City school police also left the area around that time.

Emails from Thornton were scarce in the correspondence the day of the riots. He did participate in a robocall that went out to parents that night.

He said he was visible in schools, rather than in front of cameras.

"I don't want to be in front of a TV [camera] — that's not my game," he said in an interview.

Of the riots, Thornton said that "you would have to be blind to not see that coming."

Edie House, a city school spokeswoman, said the district opened schools Monday because officials had a plan in place, adding that the chief academic officer had emailed principals with a guide for how to handle Monday.

Thornton decided to close schools on Tuesday — although his staff made clear in the emails that he was worried about delaying a school board vote on the budget.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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