By Theola Labbé-DeBose and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 20, 2008
A melee yesterday at a Southeast Washington high school left five students injured, including three with stab wounds, on a day when police, parents, teachers and city officials held a series of meetings to discuss ways of curbing youth violence.
The disturbance at Anacostia High School began shortly after 12:30 p.m. when two students began fighting in a second-floor hallway, said Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes. While officers assigned to the school were breaking up the fight, someone set a small fire in another hallway on the floor, Groomes said. During the evacuation of the school's 1,100 students, more fights broke out among rival groups.
Groomes said five students were taken to hospitals -- three with stab wounds, one who was hurt in a fight and one who had an asthma attack. The teenager who was hurt while fighting is suspected of stabbing at least one of the other students with a "penlike knife," Groomes said. He was charged as a juvenile with assault with a dangerous weapon. Another youth was charged with disorderly conduct after he got into a fight outside the school during the evacuation.
Youth violence, and the difficulty of deterring it, was a topic of discussion elsewhere in the city yesterday. Last night, parents from Ballou High School and Hart Middle School, both in Southeast, gathered to discuss their concerns about violence and school security.
Meanwhile, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) announced that youths who have been charged as adults will no longer be housed in adult cells at the D.C. jail but in a separate facility next door. The new location has more space for classes and recreational activity, Fenty said in a statement. About 25 juveniles were moved there this week, he said.
The incident at Anacostia comes during a time of rising concern about security and discipline problems at D.C. schools. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is scheduled to appear before the D.C. Council today to present a draft of a five-year action plan that proposes significant upgrades in school security, including enhanced electronic monitoring and training programs to help teachers become more effective in defusing tense situations.
Groomes said that despite several high-profile incidents, including the recent arrest of 19 girls at Dunbar High School for fighting, school-based crime is down overall this fall compared with last year. "I personally believe that things have been going very well this year," Groomes said.
Police have also committed significant resources to schools with a history of security issues, such as Ballou, where two students were arrested last week after a girl was hit with pepper spray and stabbed. Cmdr. J.R. Maupin of the 7th Police District said 17 officers, the district's entire foot patrol unit, are outside the school each afternoon to make sure that its 1,500 students "leave in a safe and orderly fashion."
At Hart, where the level of violence and disorder -- including assaults on at least three teachers -- prompted Rhee to intervene this month with a team of administrators and to dismiss Principal Kisha Webster, about 200 parents and faculty packed the school auditorium to air complaints.
Terry Parker, who has two nieces in the seventh grade, said that when she picks them up in the afternoon, she hears tales of fights and disputes and instances of girls being improperly touched by male students.
"Every day, it's always something. It's not safe," Parker said in an interview.
D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said much of the violence at Hart could have been averted if the school system had planned more carefully for its consolidation with P.R. Harris, another Southeast middle school that was closed in June. Barry said administrators did nothing beforehand to ease the potential for neighborhood tensions and school rivalries that have played out under Hart's roof.
"They sent sixth- , seventh- and eighth-graders to Hart from P.R. Harris without any preparation for the neighborhood beefs," Barry said.
Other officials appealed to parents to assert more control over their children's school behavior. At Ballou, where only about two dozen parents joined students, staff and community leaders for an evening meeting in the cafeteria, a community activist urged them to commit to solving the problem.
"Everyone has got to get involved," said Ronald Moten, co-founder of Peaceoholics, a group that works to mediate and defuse community conflicts. "Get off our butts, come up here and be a part of the solution."
Youth violence also was the focus of a forum in Chinatown yesterday arranged by Leadership Greater Washington, a nonprofit organization that brings together regional leaders to discuss quality-of-life issues. Panelists, saying there is no simple solution to the problem, encouraged a series of small steps to ease youth violence.
Among the speakers was a 17-year-old identified only by his first name, Adolfo. He said violence is so pervasive in his neighborhood that it is difficult to get a group together for a movie or trip to the mall, because so many of his peers belong to rival gangs at war with each other.
Barbara Adderley, an instructional superintendent with the D.C. schools, suggested pairing up schools with "faith partners," such as churches, synagogues and mosques. She said such an approach had worked well in Philadelphia, where churches opened summer camps for youths in their partner schools, and some even held graduation ceremonies.
Many agreed that progress comes one person at a time.
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier recalled a temporary maintenance worker she met at police headquarters. When he told her his job was about to end and he feared sliding back into a life of drugs and crime, she helped him look for a job, she said.
"That's the only way I know how to do it, one by one," Lanier said.
Staff writers Paul Duggan and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.