BALTIMORE (AP) - Math teacher Eugene Chong Qui has an easy way
to show just how bad the problem of students starting fires has
become at his school.
He simply points to the bright-red fire truck and the four
firefighters stationed every day in front of Walbrook High School.
A little more than two months into the school year, Walbrook has
reported about 20 fires, compared with 24 during all of last year -
most of them small, most thought to have been set by students.
Across Baltimore, there have already been 65 fires at 13 schools,
according to fire officials, compared with 168 last year.
"I've never seen it this bad before," says Chong Qui, who's
taught in the city school system for eight years. "I don't know
what it stems from, but it's systemic. It really seems as if the
students are so far gone out of their minds, they'll do anything
In a school system that's struggling with a $58 million deficit,
random violence, widespread apathy among students and frustration
among teachers, some say the surge in fires is striking evidence of
even deeper problems.
Across the city, a pattern repeats itself: firefighters get a
call about a fire in a trash can or locker, a bathroom or stairwell
- the school is evacuated, and students stream outside; with so
many people in one place, violence sometimes follows; school is
So far, there have been 61 fire-related arrests, compared with
144 last year, says city fire spokesman Kevin Cartwright. Besides
Walbrook, four-person firefighter crews are now stationed at two
other high schools.
Baltimore's large public high schools have always struggled with
fires - as have schools across the country. The difference this
year, school and fire officials say, is one of frequency. On Oct.
20 alone, firefighters got more than 10 calls from Baltimore
schools about deliberately set fires.
Part of the problem, says Bebe Verdery, education director at
the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, is that officials,
trying to fix the financial crisis, have increased class sizes - 40
or more in some classrooms - and cut staff - more than 1,000 people
last year, with 250 less teachers.
"You have a net reduction of the adults who are able to
supervise students," Verdery says. "When you combine that with
the increased class sizes, the schools seem much less capable ...
of controlling the violence and the fire-setting."
Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center
for Social Organization of Schools, says staff cuts and the loss of
counseling and extracurricular programs at schools in the city's
poorest areas - the scenes of many of the fires - have exacerbated
"The mismatch between the level of kids' needs and the level of
resources available to help solve their problems leads to kids
feeling lost," Balfanz says. "When kids feel lost and frustrated
they act out."
He says many poor students enter school without the academic
skills needed to compete. When students also don't have chances to
succeed in after-school programs, or get help through counseling,
Balfanz says, officials can't "counteract the behavioral problems.
It's like a contagion. There's not enough positive support to pull
these kids back."
Nationally, there were an estimated 2,700 fires in high schools
and middle schools in 2002, the most recent data available. Arson
was the leading cause, responsible for 52 percent of the fires,
according to Gayle Kelch, a statistician at the National Fire Data
Center, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The center doesn't keep similar statistics on the city level,
and information on fires is released in different ways at different
city school districts. In Philadelphia, however, more than 230
public school arsons were reported in 2001-2002, according to a
Christopher Swanson, a research associate at the Urban
Institute, which studies city schools, says that, despite recent
and intense media coverage, it's too early to determine whether
Baltimore's fires are being set by a small number of "bad
apples," or whether there's a bigger problem.
Chong Qui says Walbrook's fires "probably started out with a
handful of kids. But that handful has contaminated maybe three or
four other handfuls who aren't strong enough to say no."
Baltimore school officials have pleaded for help. And in late
October, the city school board voted to spend $1.5 million from
reserve funds to improve security and supervision at 15 "high
need" schools. Officials there can now hire 37 more hall monitors
and 34 more security officers.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley says the mayor believes
the city must use a multi-pronged approach to address the problems
underlying the vandalism.
"There's no one solution - there's no one underlying cause,"
spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan has also ordered the
city and state to put an additional $30-45 million into Baltimore
public schools this year. In August, ACLU lawyers convinced Kaplan
that the system's plan to recover from its financial crisis hurt
the quality of education available to students.
But while the state appeals Kaplan's order, the money has gone
At Walbrook, the number of fires has dropped recently, Chong Qui
says, although he expects them to start up again. Students have
also started fighting more in hallways.
"The behavior of the students doesn't change, just the way in
which they express themselves - be it fires or fights," he says.
"There's always going to be something for us to deal with."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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11-11-2004, 06:11 AM #1
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11-11-2004, 03:06 PM #2
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