Ongoing issues with Friendship Academy of Science and Technology students’ behavior in the surrounding neighborhoods–including an Oct. 23 attack on staff members at another school–have prompted discussions about the school’s future.
FAST, formerly the location of Canton Middle School, is located in Canton at Highland and Fait avenues.
In two separate incidents that occurred in Patterson Park on Oct. 23, a group of FAST students reportedly first attempted to assault and rob one Patterson Park Public Charter School employee, and then did assault and attempt to rob another.
A statement made to the Guide by one of the victims (who asked not to be named) describes what happened to him:
“I was in Patterson Park on the phone about to pick up my students from recess in the park. I saw a group of eight to 10 FAST kids. One asked to see my phone. I said no. He walked away. Another kid in the group was very bold. He cursed at me, took off his jacket and book bag and stepped toward me for a fight. The other kids were surrounding me with rocks and sticks (the kind of sticks that hold up trees). At that point, I chose to run away,” he said. “The kids chased me, but I lost them. When I got near the tennis courts, I called the police. I heard a scream from about 400 yards away. The same group of kids had just assaulted and attempted to rob another staff member. The police caught the kids on a nearby street. When I left, two were being arrested. Even in handcuffs, they continued calling me names and showed no remorse.”
The other staff member’s attack is described in a police report, which states that he was walking in Patterson Park when he was approached by a group of juveniles, one of whom asked to ‘hold his phone.’ When the victim refused, he was struck in the face with a tree branch. Then he was chased by 10-15 males who threw rocks at him. The report adds that incident was observed by the vice principal of a local school. The suspects were stopped by the sergeant and the reporting officer for another matter, and the officer was approached by the victim, who identified them as the aggressors.
At a Southeastern District Police and Community Relations Council meeting on Monday, Major Bill Davis said that two arrests were made in the Patterson Park incidents. Responding to a question from a citizen, he said that without the information in front of him, he wasn’t sure which school the attackers were from.
An email to 1st District Councilman Jim Kraft from FAST Principal James Sargent indicates that the juveniles were from FAST. Sargent did not respond to a request for comment.
Not long after the incidents, neighbors contacted the heads of community groups, as well Kraft and State Senator Bill Ferguson.
Kraft says he has been advocating for the closure of FAST for years because of students’ past violent incidents, as well as the Southeast’s need for more elementary schools.
“I’ve spoken with the Board of Education many times about this, and I can’t tell you how many times I spoke to former Superintendent Andres Alonso…In the past, I was told no. But when I contacted the Board of Education last Tuesday, I was told they were looking at all available options,” Kraft said.
FAST is a middle/high school operated by Friendship Public Charter School, Inc. According to the Baltimore City Public Schools’ Web site, it is a transformation school, “operated by independent education entities, and each has a specific theme and a unique curriculum that focuses on college, career or alternative programming.”
Transformation schools admit students through a lottery.
A group of Canton and Patterson Park-area residents has begun documenting other incidents involving FAST students. A summary will be presented at a meeting of the Canton Community Association on Nov. 26.
Sargent is also scheduled to attend the meeting, along with some FAST students.
Rob Bailey, who lives in Canton near the school, said that incidents include vandalism, property damage, and kicking in basement windows.
“Four kids from FAST were recently involved in a graffiti incident at my house,” said Bailey. “The principal came to my house later with one of the kids in the group—not the one who actually did it—to apologize and clean up, but I already had.”
Bailey also said that, the same week, one of the students who did take part in the graffiti returned with a companion and hung out on a bench in front of his home.
Bailey added that he sees students from the school “wandering the neighborhood” during the day.
“How can they get out of school?” he said.
Ferguson—who worked in education prior to becoming a state senator—says that he reached out to Sean Conley, who oversees support networks in the Baltimore City Public Schools.
“We agreed to set up a meeting between the school stakeholders (central office, school principal, school operator – Friendship Academy) and community members,” he said.
“I am working with a group of community members to gather the community-impact perspective. Our hope is that if we share this information prior to the CCA meeting, then we can come to a smaller group meeting to focus on solutions,” he said.
Ferguson noted that he is not advocating for the school to be closed.
“The School Board is the best mechanism to make that decision,” he said. “Its operator is under review [for renewal].”
Last year, the operator’s contract was extended for one year, pending additional performance data.
At present, instead of pushing for the school to close, Ferguson wants to find strategies to improve FAST’s relationship with the surrounding community.
“One example might be increasing school police or truancy staff, or a Saturday, community-based detention,” he said.
“I’ve seen that work in other parts of Baltimore.”
Kraft, however, says that at this point, he is awaiting feedback from the Board of Education.
He believes that while the transformation schools were well intentioned—he says two other transformation schools in the Southeast have already closed—this one is not in the right location.
“Kids need to have some investment in the community where their school is located. The school has tried to give them that, with the garden [FAST Wonder Garden] for example, but it nowhere near counterbalances the problems we’ve had with the students,” he said.
As for how FAST will be disciplining the students involved in the Patterson Park incidents, an email to Principal Sargent went unanswered.
An email from Sargent to Kraft’s office, however, indicates that the students “are being proposed for long-term suspension.”
by Danielle Sweeney