From the Baltimore Sun

Tensions simmer over school in Federal Hill

Incidents put residents, Digital Harbor students at odds, dredging up suspicions of disrespect, racism

By Sara Neufeld and Brent Jones
Sun reporters

February 19, 2007

When Baltimore's troubled Southern High School was reborn five years ago with a $42 million makeover as Digital Harbor High, the school committed to fill 20 percent of its freshman classes with neighborhood children.

For the past two years, however, the showcase citywide technology magnet school in Federal Hill hasn't received enough applications from nearby residents to fulfill that commitment.

That lack of interest is emblematic of the gulf between Digital Harbor's mostly black and mostly poor student body and the predominantly white and affluent neighborhood where the students go to school.

It is a gulf that manifests itself in the fears and wariness on the part of some merchants and residents on the one hand and suspicions of racism on the part of some students on the other.

And it is a gulf that, to some, has elevated a string of relatively minor criminal acts - a smashed car windshield, a purse-snatching - into a mini-crisis.

In October, a fight between two girls in the heart of Federal Hill's business district attracted about 100 unruly Digital Harbor students, one of whom smashed a car windshield.

Then last month, unnamed Digital Harbor students were accused - perhaps erroneously - of stealing a woman's purse and throwing it into the Inner Harbor, causing her to fall in. No arrests have been made.

Dennis Trencher, 60, who lives near the school, says most students behave as they walk through the neighborhood after school, but he sees some trying to open car doors and approaching residents in a threatening way. Between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., he says, "I'm intentionally not on the street."

His biggest complaint is litter from students' snacks. "The chicken bones are everywhere," he says. "It's a pig sty."

Meanwhile, some students say the actions and words of neighborhood residents tell them they're not welcome.

"They think we bring danger to the neighborhood," says Kache Albright, a 15-year-old Digital Harbor freshman. "They think we're 'hood rats."

Trying to co-exist
Digital Harbor's presence in a gentrifying South Baltimore neighborhood just steps away from the city's biggest tourist destination illustrates a challenge: Can the school peacefully coexist with a neighborhood that views its students as outsiders?

Longtime residents acknowledge that students' behavior in the streets was far worse when the neighborhood school on Covington Street was Southern. Digital Harbor now shares the building with another small high school, National Academy Foundation.

Digital Harbor serves about 800 students from around the city. With a state-of-the-art facility and no admissions criteria, it is Baltimore's most popular high school, selecting by lottery a fraction of those who apply.

Digital Harbor prepares students to go to college or directly to careers in technology. All students select one of four career tracks: programming and software, video production, information systems or networking.

Baltimore has essentially eliminated neighborhood high schools, instead letting students choose from a variety of small, themed schools around the city.

Students say they want the Federal Hill community to know the good things going on at Digital Harbor: The school met standards on state tests last year, has three new Advanced Placement classes and boasts one of the state's best track teams.

But most residents see Digital Harbor students only on their way to and from school. Many are empty-nesters or young professionals who don't have high-school-age children, leaving them without much of a connection to Digital Harbor. Some send their children to private schools.

"Because we're in Federal Hill, where everybody pays so much money for their houses, they don't want a high school right in the middle of it," says Courtney Smith, a 17-year-old senior. "They expect us to be more polite and not act like teenagers."

In what was once a predominantly white, blue-collar area, luxury townhouses are going up steps from the school campus, with new Ritz Carlton condominiums just around the corner.

After classes let out at 3:35 p.m., many students walk through Federal Hill and the Inner Harbor to catch public buses home, often gathering at eateries along the way. Sometimes, students say and school administrators confirm, bus drivers see groups of teens waiting and keep driving.

A Maryland Transit Administration spokeswoman said officials have heard no complaints about buses bypassing Federal Hill stops. She said a driver does have the authority not to pick up passengers if the bus is full.

Minutes after the final school bell rang on a recent afternoon, dozens of students flooded the Cross Street sidewalk and headed west toward Light Street in search of food and transportation.

Cross Street Market is the most popular destination. Students pack the Light Street entrance and provide an afternoon rush for a handful of food stands.

John Nichols, owner of Steve's Lunch, says students can get rowdy at times, but if he tells them to quiet down, they listen.

"The kids are going to act the way they're treated," says Nichols, who has been at his current location for 42 years. "Treat them with respect, they'll give respect."

For 40 minutes, Nichols' stand has a line of students ordering burgers and hot dogs. A police officer patrols inside the market.

A few feet away, employees at Fenwick Choice Meats say the afternoon influx of students has hurt their business. One says some regular customers don't come in when they see all the students. He also says students tend to block the lottery machine, a reliable source of income.

Despite the tensions, both sides have been reaching out. The Key Highway Community Association is planning a school mentoring program, and students from Digital Harbor's National Honor Society have been volunteering recently for neighborhood trash cleanups.

New obstacles
Last month presented a setback.

About 4 p.m. on Jan. 11, a 21-year-old Rockville woman was walking through the Inner Harbor when, she told police, she was hit from behind by teens in khaki pants who took her purse. A police spokesman appearing on television said he thought they were in burgundy shirts - not the white or blue of Digital Harbor's uniform.

The spokesman later said he confused the shirt color, but he maintained that the students were from the Digital Harbor complex because of the time of day and the large number of teens involved. At the same time, he said it would be nearly impossible to determine the individuals at fault.

The news media attention the incident received led to more allegations. Singapore native Ray Hua, 38, says he was walking to his Federal Hill home about 4 p.m. Jan. 9 when he passed a group of teens in khakis outside the Maryland Science Center.

"One of them gave me a flying kick from behind," says Hua, who received a marketing degree from the University of Baltimore in December. He says he fell to the ground, at which point "I was punched on my left eye three or four times." He says he doesn't know whether the youths were from Digital Harbor.

That same week, a Polytechnic Institute student was assaulted at the Inner Harbor. School officials say a National Academy Foundation student is suspected in that attack.

On Jan. 19, police responded to a report of a youth throwing a rock at a car outside the Digital Harbor complex.

Principal Brian Eyer says he's left in a predicament, trying to hold his students accountable for their actions but left without proof about whom specifically to blame. Student government president Brandon Green, 17, says the allegations have been "devastating to our Digital Harbor culture."

Parent Laura Schoefield says her son, a Digital Harbor junior, was walking to his bus stop after school at the Inner Harbor recently when a police officer stopped him and told him not to take that route anymore.

"He runs track and plays sports," she says. "When he leaves school, it's dark, and that was the safest way for him to walk." In an e-mail to The Sun, Schoefield asked: "If a bank gets robbed by an African-American, do you ban all African-Americans from going into a bank?"

Placing blame
Within Digital Harbor, older students are blaming freshmen for acting out and making the school look bad.

"Many of the kids are carrying some bad behavior from middle school, and we are trying hard to extinguish those bad behaviors," says Andrea Bowden, the assistant principal.

In its first few years of operation, Digital Harbor was allowed to send students back to their neighborhood high schools for chronic misbehavior, and Bowden says administrators usually ask about 20 freshmen a year to leave. But last year, she says, city school headquarters stopped allowing that practice.

In an algebra classroom on a recent afternoon, several Digital Harbor freshmen say they feel they are victims of racism.

"Every time something goes on in the harbor, they always got to say Digital Harbor students did it," says Briona Tillery, 15, who was arrested in connection with the October fight but later cleared of the charges against her. "They see you walking down the street with 10 people, they think you're going to gang-bang somebody."

Keonna Rogers, 15, disagreed with her classmates. "It's not racism," she says. "Some of us black kids don't know how to act when good things come along, good opportunities. They ain't got to be running around the harbor playing all the time."

Copyright 2007, The Baltimore Sun |