Mass Suspensions Leave Baltimore Reeling

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Public support continued to build last week for the principal of a public high school in Baltimore who faces possible disciplinary action from her superiors after she suspended 1,200 of the school's 1,800 students.

Letters to local newspapers and callers to talk-radio programs voiced their support for Alice Morgan Brown, the principal of Northern High School, and condemned district officials who were critical of the principal's actions. She also received the backing last week of several ministerial groups.

As of the Thanksgiving break, no official action had been taken against Ms. Morgan Brown, who has been at the high school for two years.

Report Card Showdown

The incident at Northern High School began Nov. 14 when students disobeyed Ms. Morgan Brown's order to pick up their report cards. She repeated her order Nov. 17, and again they disobeyed. Then, according to local media reports, the principal barred students from leaving the premises at the end of the school day by locking the doors. Amid signs of growing disorder, she quickly reopened the doors and told students that if they did not return to their homerooms, they would be suspended--a threat she carried out.

Parents were notified by letter Nov. 19 that their children had been suspended. By the following day, however, the suspensions had been lifted.

It was unclear who issued the repeal of the suspensions. District officials said Ms. Morgan Brown did so, although local reports indicated that the central administration had pressured her. She would not accept phone calls about the situation.

"There is a much larger issue here; Northern has had a history of problems," said Vanessa C. Pyatt, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore schools.

"The circumstances surrounding the mass suspensions will be investigated," Ms. Pyatt said. "We want to find out why the problems were not properly communicated to the school board and what other options were available."

Union Has Complained

Officials from the Baltimore Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said they had filed numerous complaints with the principal and the superintendent's office about problems in the school before last month's incident.

"Teachers have said that they don't feel safe because of the lack of control in the school," said Marcia Brown, the president of the 7,000-member union. "Over and over again, the union has requested a systemwide discipline code that the board did not adopt until after the school year began."

The discipline code was first presented to the school board in May 1996. It was adopted this September, but has not yet been implemented, according to Ms. Brown. The code identifies three levels of bad behavior and the consequences. Parents and students would also have to sign the code to indicate that they have read it. "This way, everyone would be clear about the rules," Ms. Brown said. "I believe that this never would have happened if the discipline code had been in place."

Discipline was not the only problem the school faced when the new school year began. Many of the students' schedules were nonexistent, and teachers did not know which students were in their classes and which were not, according to Ms. Brown. "Students took advantage of that, but there also needs to be some administrative responsibility in this matter as well," Ms. Brown said.

Baltimore officials and educators also cite parental apathy as a problem. Parents of suspended students were invited to the school to discuss the situation, but fewer than 100 parents attended the Nov. 21 meeting, Ms. Pyatt said.

Meanwhile, district officials announced last week that they had enlisted the assistance of Baltimore's Morgan State University and television station WJZ to help Northern High School increase parent, student, and community involvement. WJZ, for example, will provide mentors.

Some educators, meanwhile, questioned the action that the principal had taken.

"All schools potentially have a discipline problem, but you don't let it deteriorate to that point, " said Gwendolyn J. Cooke, the director of urban services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

"We understand that the responsibility is a collective responsibility," Ms. Cooke said, "not just the principal but the faculty and staff as well."

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