- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

BALTIMORE — Math teacher Eugene Chong Qui has an easy way to show how bad the problem of students starting fires has become at his school.

He points to the bright-red firetruck 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 last year. Most of them were small but appear to have been set by students.

Fire officials report 65 fires so far this year at 13 city schools, compared with 168 last year.

“I’ve never seen it this bad before,” said Mr. Chong Qui, a teacher 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 for attention.”

On Oct. 20, firefighters received more than 10 calls from city schools about deliberately set fires.

The school system is struggling with a $58 million deficit, violence, student apathy and frustration among teachers, and some say the increased number of fires is evidence of even deeper problems.

The pattern typically repeats itself. It begins when firefighters receive a call about a fire in a trash can, a locker, a bathroom or a stairwell. Then the school is evacuated, and students stream outside. With so many people in one place, violence sometimes follows and the school usually is canceled.

There have been 61 fire-related arrests so far this year, compared with 144 last year, said Kevin Cartwright, spokesman for the Baltimore City Fire Department. Firefighting crews are stationed at two high schools in addition to the one at Walbrook.

Part of the problem is that officials have increased class size to try to fix the financial crisis, said Bebe Verdery, education director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Some classes have 40 or more students. The school system also cut its payroll by more than 1,000 people last year, and now has 250 fewer teachers, Miss Verdery said.

“You have a net reduction of the adults who are able to supervise students,” she said. “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, said the 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 disciplinary problems.

There were an estimated 2,700 fires in U.S. high schools and middle schools in 2002, according to the most recent data available. About 52 percent of the fires were attributed to arson, making it the leading cause, according to the National Fire Data Center, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The center does not keep similar statistics on the city level, and information on fires is released in different ways at different city school districts.

However, Philadelphia officials reported more than 230 public school arsons in the 2001-02 academic year, according to a published report.

Baltimore’s school board voted in late October to spend $1.5 million from reserve funds to improve security and supervision at 15 “high need” schools. Officials now can hire 37 more hall monitors and 34 more security officers.

A City Hall spokeswoman said Mayor Martin O’Malley thinks Baltimore must use a multipronged approach to address the problems.

“There’s no one solution,” said Raquel Guillery, the spokeswoman. “There’s no one underlying cause.”

Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan also has ordered the city and state to put an additional $30 million to $45 million this year into public schools. The state is appealing the judge’s order.

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