Fires, false alarms disrupt D.C.'s Ballou High School

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009

The fire at Ballou High School on Dec. 2 was a small one, involving the contents of a trash can in the basement under the gymnasium. There was a moderate amount of smoke, a brief evacuation and no injuries.

What made it extraordinary was that it marked the 40th time that firefighters had been called to the Southeast Washington school since the academic year began Aug. 24, officials said. That's an average of more than twice a week.

Thirteen of the calls have been for smallish fires such as the one Dec. 2, mostly in stairwells and trash cans in the girls' or boys' bathrooms. A hallway bulletin board was ignited Sept. 9. Two fires broke out within 20 minutes of each other just before dismissal Sept. 29.

The rest have been false alarms or other incidents, including calls for medical assistance. Fire investigators have arrested six students in three of the incidents.

Many schools deal with the occasional small fire, but the volume of calls at Ballou is way beyond the norm, officials say.

"It's a pretty significant number," said Pete Piringer, spokesman for the D.C. fire department.

School and fire officials said they have met to discuss the situation and are forming a fire prevention team that will be led by Ballou administrators and the D.C. police officer assigned to the school. The fire department also operates a Juvenile Firesetter's Intervention Program that offers short-term counseling and identifies at-risk students.

Ballou Principal Rahman Branch declined to comment without permission from Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's office. Officials did not respond to requests to make Branch available.

"We take student discipline very seriously," Jennifer Calloway, Rhee's spokeswoman, said in a brief statement.

There have been no injuries, but the fires, most of which happened after lunch, triggered evacuations that disrupted the school day, shortening instructional time at the school, where just 24 percent of sophomores read at proficiency levels, according to the 2009 DC-CAS standardized test results.

Students say some of their classmates view evacuations as a way to take the rest of the day off.

"The people just go home, and they miss out on their education," said one girl who declined to give her name as she walked into school Monday.

Ron Moten, a Ballou parent and co-founder of Peaceaholics, a nonprofit group that works with at-risk youths in the District, said much of the problem is caused by students acting out because they are upset with a teacher or don't want to go to class. He said Ballou's size -- 271,000 square feet spread over two buildings on Fourth Street SE near Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue -- makes it difficult to stay on top of the problem.

"There are so many doors in the building, and the [security] cameras don't cover everywhere students go to do something like that," Moten said.

Ballou PTA President Lisa Barton, whose daughter complained in a cellphone message that she was standing in the cold during the Dec. 2 evacuation, said it's up to parents to get a handle on the problem.

"All we can do is talk to our kids," she said. "Maybe we need to get parents to come to school and stand in front of the bathrooms."

Moten and Barton said it would be unfortunate if the fire issue overshadowed some of the achievements at Ballou this year, including the marching band's appearance at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the football's team's appearance in the Turkey Bowl, the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association championship game.

"We have all this great stuff, and these are fine-tuning things that need to be dealt with," Moten said. "There's a lot of good things going on at the school."

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