Ballou High School principal Dennis Johnson, a 6-foot former track star, has been walking around the school this week wearing a turtleneck sweater. He says that's because one of Ballou's 10th graders tried to strangle him the other day with his own tie.
Some Ballou students, meanwhile, are walking around the halls weighted down with their inch-thick biology books and other texts, bulky jackets and other belongings because the school system has decided to rip out all the lockers and put in new ones. It's something that should have been done in the summer, Johnson says.
Johnson and Ballou's assistant principals spent the summer mopping up the school library after a fire in May, repainting part of it and washing and hanging the library's curtains.
It's been a particularly difficult semester at Ballou, one of the city's largest, roughest, toughest high schools, set atop a hill in a far corner of Anacostia.
Ballou is so far removed from the heart of Washington (the panoramic downtown skyline seems like a distant city from there) that Johnson thinks school officials have simply forgotten about it -- even though students in Ballou's special mathematics and science classes have developed a computerized accounting system that outperforms the city government's $38 million one, and even though R. Calvin Lockridge and Eugene Kinlow, the past and current president, respectively, of the school board, come from Anacostia.
Johnson thought it was high time for him to bring his case directly to the school board and acting superintendent James T. Guines at a community meeting last Wednesday night.
Appearing in a sport shirt and tennis sneakers, Johnson told an impassive school board, "At Ballou, we're fightin' every day and we're dyin', dyin' . . . help us, board of education."
There's hardly any place to sit at Ballou basketball games, Johnson told the board, because the school system decided to tear down half the bleachers in the gymnasium in the middle of basketball season and has yet to replace them.
That's not the only place where there are too few seats. Johnson told the board that for the past two years the cedntral administration office -- which he calls "big daddy downtown" -- has denied his requests for 50 extra tables and 200 chairs for the school cafeteria.
Ballou was built for about l,000 students, he said, and there are some 2,400 there and just no room for them to sit in the cafeteria. Many students were standing in the cafeteria and eating a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and collard greens one day last week.
Johnson, who says he has had bottles and bricks thrown at him by Ballou students and the seemingly never-ending stream of "outsiders" -- the dropouts, truants, and even outpatients from nearby St. Elizabeth's mental hospital who hang out around the school -- told the board he spends 90 percent of the day fighting off hoodlums.
"And I know what I'm talking about when I say hoodlums cause I'm from South Philly," the distraught principal said.
Johnson said the problem with outsiders disrupting the school day became so severe two weeks ago that he ordered closed a city-run mini-employment center housed at Ballou which he felt was drawing too many outsiders.
"They were drinking in the building, smoking marijuana, fighting with one another," Johnson said of the adults and youths who came to the center looking for jobs. The day he ordered the center closed, two truant youths from another school had broken open a locked door at Ballou to get into the job center.
Wearing a blue Ballou windbreaker and wing-tipped shoes will worn at the heel, Johnson, known to his students as "Dr. J.," walks around the block-wide school five to 10 times a day, his eyes always darting back and forth to catch a student cutting class or a boy wearing his hat in the building against regulations. He bends down periodically to scoop up a crumpled potato chip bag or a candy wrapper from the floor.
"Hats off, gentlemen," then louder "Gentlemen! Let's go ladies, you're late for class. I have guests here today and you're embarrassing me," he booms in a South Philadelphia accent, rapidly, all in one breath.
Back in his office, he opens a file cabinet and pulls out a five-inch-long steak knife. "See this, I took this away from an outsider . . . and see this," he adds picking up a baseball bat, "I took this away from another outsider." Two female teachers were assaulted at the school last year, he said.
Just before the Christmas holidays, Johnson said he left school one afternoon to find his car windshield smashed. The windshield of assistant principal Robert Royster also was smashed.
Johnson said central administration has repeatedly ignored his requests for 10 community aides to patrol the halls and school grounds. Johnson said Ballou's four assistant principals hardly have time to conduct parent conferences because they constantly have to patrol the school grounds.
"The school board only talks about security when somebody gets stabbed or shot," assistant principal Lloyd Williams said. "Nobody is going to say anything until somebody gets killed."
Lockridge said yesterday that he agrees with nearly all of Johnson's contentions. The school board is trying to address some of the problems, he said, and the failure to resolve others is the fault of the school administration. "The support services from the regional offices leave a lot to be desired," Lockridge said.
Board president Kinlow, two of whose children have attended Ballou, said the first he heard of the problems was at the Wednesday night meeting. Kinlow, an at-large board member, said solving the problems is the responsibility of Lockridge, the Ward 8 representative, and the school administration.
Guines said yesterday that he did not understand why Johnson had waited so long to complain about conditions at Ballou. But, the acting superintendent said he will be "more responsive than any other administration in the past."