Nearby Killing Casts Cloud Over Md. School

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008

The No. 1 reason students get into trouble at Charles H. Flowers High School is not for fighting, not for weapons, not for stealing. It's for this: disrespect. Disruptive but hardly dangerous. It's the kind of school where, in a survey last year, 58 percent of the students agreed that they "feel safe" -- far more than at many other high schools in Prince George's County. The school boasts the second-highest state test scores in the county.

But all that is cold comfort to parents alongside the fact that a teenage girl was shot dead and another wounded walking home from the school. They were barely a quarter of a mile away when a car pulled up and bullets poured out.

A dread has settled on some parents left wondering if the modern tide of mindless violence is rising around them, wondering if one more school is at a tipping point.

"The school has so much potential," said Lisa Cooper, mother of a freshman. Which way will it go now?

"Don't get me wrong. It's not the worst school in the world. Some of the problems that school has, most schools have. . . . How Flowers builds itself from the ashes of this incident will say a lot about it. This is an opportunity to fall down or keep the image and build on it."

It is not only Flowers's image at stake. In some ways, it is the future of Prince George's public schools.

The school was opened in 2000, in part to hold on to a growing black middle class turning to private schools. Flowers has billed itself as "a mecca of excellence," and academically it is among the strongest in the county. Every year, hundreds of students take tests for admission to a highly competitive science and technology program, which attracts the top 5 percent of students in the county. On state tests of achievement last year, 72.6 percent of those tested showed proficiency in reading and 65.7 percent in math, well above the county average of 58.1 percent in reading and 51.9 percent in math. Only Eleanor Roosevelt, in Greenbelt, bested Flowers in both categories.

Before Flowers opened, some parents were concerned about mixing students from the affluent neighborhoods surrounding the school in Springdale, just outside the Capital Beltway, with students from poorer families not much farther away. And the working-class families did not want to be excluded from the attractive campus and its academic opportunities.

As a compromise, Flowers draws students from nearly everywhere. The area is an economic patchwork: Mitchellville, to the east, is home to the Country Club at Woodmore, a golf course and million-dollar mansions. Ardmore, just outside the Beltway, and Glenarden, just inside, have more modest single-family homes. The working-class communities along Brightseat Road and in Palmer Park, farther inside the Beltway, also send students to the school.

The distinctions between the communities are sharply defined by crime: Although Mitchellville, Springdale and Ardmore had one homicide and occasional break-ins and thefts last year, nearly all of the killing in the area fell inside the Beltway, according to Burgersub.org, a Web site that tracks homicides in the Washington region.

Disagreement over whether students carry their neighborhood differences to school is fierce.

Police have arrested three Lanham teens in the drive-by Jan. 8 near Flowers, which killed Cherrese Richardson, 18, a senior, and wounded Sonja Bangura, 17, a junior. A 36-year-old man in a passing vehicle was struck by a stray bullet but was not seriously injured. None of the suspects went to Flowers. Law enforcement sources have blamed a long-simmering feud between the Glenarden Goons and the Ardmore Goons, two neighborhood gangs. Each group claims ownership of neighborhoods less than a mile apart and has been linked to street robberies and low-level drug dealing, sources said.


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