The unusual warmth of a recent springlike afternoon could be felt in the sounds of children playing on the grounds of Katie C. Lewis Elementary School, Third and Bryant streets NW. But just a few yards away, like something from an old horror movie, there lies amid weed-covered and garbage-strewn grounds the abandoned Mott Elementary School, which Lewis was built to replace five years ago.
This is the setting for the modern horror story that haunts LaVerne Cozzens, dynamic principal of Lewis, and the teachers and parents of Lewis students. It is also a tale of a bureaucratic foul-up and the city's insensitivity to its people.
Mott Elementary School closed in 1977, after Lewis was built to replace it. Since that time, it has been "a haven for thieves, drug addicts, vagrants and rodents," says Cozzens, who recalls, in 1979, that Lewis teachers would have to interrupt classes to yell from their windows at men "trying to rape Howard University students behind Mott." Since that time, Cozzens says she has gotten a little help from the police in watching the school, but no answers to her pleas to "do something" about the abandoned school near her thriving one.
On this particular day, a quick tour reveals no rapists or drug addicts hiding in the building. But Cozzens says that it is routine to have children bring into her office such items as syringe needles used to inject heroin that they have found on the Mott school grounds. She admonishes her students to stay away from the Mott building, but admits there is no way to curb a child's curiosity.
Mrs. Abilah Bilal, vice president of the Lewis PTA, described Cozzens and the Lewis faculty as "soldiers in a war zone." She says that Cozzens has told her that the Mott building has twice been used as a fortress by armed criminals, and less than three months ago, two young men shot up drugs in full view of the young pupils playing on the school grounds. "It's young minds we're dealing with," Bilal reminds. "You can imagine what a child's imagination will do."
The PTA and principal Cozzens have made countless written and direct pleas to the District government, which owns the Mott school, but they say all of their pleas to do something about Mott have fallen on deaf ears.
The problem becomes more frustrating because, at one point, there seemed an easy solution. Howard University wanted to buy the land from the city. But District government assessors valued the property at several millions of dollars more than Howard's assessors did, and negotiations stalled. Meanwhile, the building has lost value because its copper pipes, toilets and most other salvageable material have been looted.
Bob Weaver, senior assessor for the city, said one problem may be that the cities' assessment includes Lewis School as well as Mott, and therefore may be in need of clarification. A spokesman for the mayor, Annette Samuels, said the parcels are already separate and the city is trying to sell the Mott property at an asking price of $3 million. That asking price seems extremely high, according to Howard University's Dr. Caspa Harris. "If they gave us the building, we'd probably tear it down and make a parking lot," he says.
Bilal and Cozzens said they have been trying unsuccessfully for the past two years to see the mayor about this. Samuels said the mayor knows of the problems with drug addicts breaking in and "is trying to keep on top of it." She said the District government recently issued instructions to board up the windows and clean up the debris. After five years, however, Cozzens calls the situation an example of government insensitivity, though she says she is not surprised that the inner-city neighborhood does not rate priority attention. "Black, low-income neighborhoods aren't seen as a priority. This is not a highly political area . . . the congressmen don't have to see this," she said.
But the children have to see it, and the concern is not only the immediate physical danger of the abandoned building, but the effect upon them of an environment of syringes, alcoholics and derelicts, which the children see as the adult world. "In elementary school, children receive a foundation," Bilal suggests. "A lot of these children have nothing except this school."
And the District, which is forever pressing private owners to take care of their properties, ought to seriously apply the same rules to itself.