Dozens of fires burn at struggling Baltimore schools

Posted: Wednesday, November 24, 2004

BALTIMORE Four firefighters and a fire truck are stationed outside Walbrook High School every day. The chances are good they are going to be needed.

By two months into the school year, Baltimore's public schools were been hit with at least 76 fires most of them small, most of them set by students compared with 168 in all of last year. Walbrook High alone has reported about 20 blazes, versus 24 in 2003-04.

"I've never seen it this bad before," says math teacher Eugene Chong Qui, who has taught in the city school system for eight years. "I don't know what it stems from, but it's systemic. It really seems as if the students are so far gone out of their minds, they'll do anything for attention."

In a school system struggling with a $58 million deficit, some say the surge in fires is alarming evidence of deeper problems staff shortages, cutbacks in extracurricular activities, overcrowded classrooms and rising alienation among the 95,000 students.

So far, the fires have caused little damage and no serious injuries. But across the city, a pattern has emerged: Firefighters get a call about a fire in a trash can or locker, a bathroom or stairwell; the school is evacuated, and students stream outside; with so many people in one place, violence sometimes follows; school is usually canceled.

On Oct. 20 alone, firefighters got more than 10 calls from Baltimore schools about deliberately set fires.

At Walbrook High, school officials decided not to even evacuate the building during the last several fires because of the fights outside and the lost instruction time, Chong Qui says.

So far, there have been 61 fire-related arrests, compared with 144 last year, says city fire spokesperson Kevin Cart-wright.

The fire department has posted a reward for information about those responsible and has stationed four-person crews at three high schools as a deterrent and to enable firefighters to get to the scene more quickly. Also, the school board last month voted to spend $1.5 million to enable 15 schools to hire 37 more hall monitors and 34 more security officers.

Fire officials have encouraged teachers to patrol in or around bathrooms, stairwells and empty lockers between classes. And school officials have been talking with parents to try to put a stop to the fires and other troublemaking.

"We are asking all of those concerned about the city that they join us, help us, work with as we work to create better, safe schools," school board chairperson Patricia Welch said last month. "We can't do it by ourselves."

At Walbrook High, situated in the city's working-class West Baltimore section, 16-year-old junior Christopher Spruill says students are setting the fires to get out of class. "They want to be out on the corner instead of getting an education," he says. He says students are too afraid to speak up, reward or not: "People know who's doing it, they're just not saying."

Chong Qui says Walbrook High's fires "probably started out with a handful of kids. But that handful has contaminated maybe three or four other handfuls who aren't strong enough to say no."

Part of the problem, says Bebe Verdery, education director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, is that officials, trying to fix the financial crisis, have increased class sizes 40 or more in some classrooms and cut staff more than 1,000 people last year, with 250 fewer teachers.

"You have a net reduction of the adults who are able to supervise students," Verdery says. "When you combine that with the increased class sizes, the schools seem much less capable of controlling the violence and the fire-setting."

Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Social Organization of Schools, says the vandalism stems, in part, from the loss of counseling and extracurricular programs at schools in the city's poorest areas.

"The mismatch between the level of kids' needs and the level of resources available to help solve their problems leads to kids' feeling lost," Balfanz says. "When kids feel lost and frustrated they act out."

And the misbehavior "is like a contagion."

In August, before the school year started, a judge ordered the city and state to put an additional $30 million to $45 million into the Baltimore schools after the ACLU argued that the system's plan to solve its financial crisis hurt the quality of education. But the state has appealed, and the money has not been released.

AP writer Sarah Brumfield also contributed to this report.

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