After the Storm, Students Left Alone and Angry

Adam Nossiter
Date Published: 
October 31, 2006


John McDonogh High School has at least 25 security guards, at the entrance, up the stairs and outside classes. The school has a metal detector, four police officers and four police cruisers on the sidewalk.

In the last six weeks, students at McDonogh, the largest functioning high school here, have assaulted guards, a teacher and a police officer. A guard and a teacher were beaten so badly that they were hospitalized. The surge hints at a far-reaching phenomenon after Hurricane Katrina, educators here say. Teenagers in the city are living alone or with older siblings or relatives, separated by hundreds of miles from their displaced parents. Dozens of McDonogh students fend largely for themselves, school officials say.

“They are here on their own,” Wanda Daliet, a science teacher, said. “They are raising themselves. And they are angry.”

The principal, Donald Jackson, estimated that up to a fifth of the 775 students live without parents.

“Basically, they are raising themselves, because there is no authority figure in the home,” Mr. Jackson said. “If I call for a parent because I’m having an issue, I may be getting an aunt, who may be at the oldest 20, 21. What type of governance, what type of structure is in the home, if this is the living conditions?”

In a second-floor cosmetology class, two of the six girls said their parents were elsewhere. “I don’t get to talk to her as much as I want,” one girl, Tiffany Mansion, 16, said as she looked down.

Her mother is in Little Rock, Ark.

In the lunchroom, a shy 18-year-old who was asked whom he went home to in the evenings, said: “Nobody. Myself.”

His parents are in Baton Rouge.

Mr. Jackson said many parents whom he had spoken to were in Baton Rouge, Houston or elsewhere. “That’s the question that’s buzzing in everybody’s heads,” the McDonogh curriculum coordinator, Toyia Washington Kendrick, said. “How could you leave your kids here, that are school-age kids, unattended?”

The answer is as various as the fragmented social structure, which the hurricane a year ago made even more complicated. Some students describe families barely functional even before the storm. Others say pressing economic necessity has kept parents away.

Rachelle Harrell was living in Houston, working as a medical assistant and trying to pay off a $1,300 electricity bill in New Orleans. But she yielded to her son Justin and his cousin Kiante, both 16, and sent them back to New Orleans on a Greyhound bus while she stayed in Texas. The decision anguished Ms. Harrell, 36, even though Justin was being picked on in Houston and yearned to return to McDonogh. Justin; his sister, Eboni Gay, 18; and Kiante set up housekeeping in Ms. Harrell’s old house in the Algiers neighborhood. A monthly check from his mother and a job at a fast-food restaurant helped make ends meet.

Ms. Harrell anticipated the inevitable question.

“ ‘Why are your children at home, and you’re in Texas?’ ” she asked. “Well, I’m trying to get home. It’s just crazy. But my kids know my situation. When school started, I had to work a couple of more weeks, because I had that light bill.

“It’s like, ‘Oh my God, is everything O.K.?’ I couldn’t even sleep at night. O.K. Lord, if anything happens, I’m going to be seen as such a bad mama, and I’m a hundred miles from home.” Last week, she left her job in Houston and returned to New Orleans — for good.

If the causes are complicated, the consequences seem evident to school officials: a large cadre of belligerent students, hostile to authority and with no worry about parental punishment at home. Since McDonogh reopened nearly two months ago with enrollees from 5 of the city’s 15 high schools, the students have committed six “very serious” assaults, Mr. Jackson said.

A young man suddenly bent over in the milling crowd waiting for a bus after school. The police were handcuffing him, for smoking marijuana, a school official said.

In the halls, students jostle one another and laugh on the way to class. In some classes, students strain attentively toward the blackboard.

But there is tension. The storm overturned their world, teachers and administrators say, destroying houses and scattering families.

“They’re rebelling against authority,” Ms. Daliet, the science teacher, said. “You ask them to do something, they have an attitude.”

In the lunchroom and in the corridors, students are ordered to tuck in their shirts. Many just grin in response.

“When you have guidelines at home that reflect guidelines at the school, it’s a seamless transition,” Mr. Jackson said. “But when it’s not there, you deal with a student who’s genuinely, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to do what I want to do.’ ”

Fights break out daily. About 50 students have been suspended; 20 have been recommended for expulsion.

Of the 128 schools in the city, fewer half have reopened. The state took over many of them after the storm. That change, hailed at first as a bright beginning, has proven to be partly stillborn, as teachers, textbooks and supplies came up drastically short in the state-run schools. The McDonogh library has no books. State officials, fearing mold, threw out all of them. Rundown before the storm, the school buildings are now even more battered. The stalls in a girls’ restroom have no doors.

Recrimination and finger pointing have been ample, and state officials are on the defensive. “The same way other residents are calling it quits, teachers are no different,” Leslie Jacobs, a member of the state school board, said. “The teacher shortage is real. The book shortage is real. We have a labor shortage. There is a shortage of bus drivers. The whole food-service industry is short of workers.”

Mr. Jackson is a smiling, purposeful presence, friendly but firm, upbraiding youths for slovenly dress and pursuing others along for slacking in the halls. At every turn, it can seem, an omnipresent security guard or police officer speaks to teenagers, searching for weapons or admonishing for back talk.

As a group milled on the street corner of the three-story 1911 brick building, a guard called out from the steps: “He’s taken his shirt off! They’re getting ready to fight!”

Three burly police officers quickly went up Esplanade Avenue to break up the clash. Mr. Jackson conceded that the scale of the unrest had taken him aback.

“I knew it would happen,” he said. “I had some forewarning. But I didn’t know it would be of this magnitude. We’ve seen things that really shouldn’t occur in a school.”

Several weeks ago, a teacher was “beaten unmercifully” by a ninth grader enraged at being barred from class because he was late, Mr. Jackson said. The teacher, hospitalized, has not returned to work. The student was arrested.

An 18-year-old knocked a guard unconscious. The police charged him.

The reputation for violence, first acquired through a shooting in the gymnasium in 2003 in which a young man with a rifle killed a student in front of 200 others, has grown.

Three weeks ago, a group of students summoned reporters to the school to complain about the many officers.

“We have a lot of security guards, and not enough teachers,” Maya Dawson, 17, said. Jerinise Walker, 15, added: “It’s like you’re in jail. You have people watching you all the time.” Mr. Jackson said the time had not come to reduce security.

“When we get our students to respond in a different way,” he said, “then I can back off. We’re trying to train our students to resolve conflict, and that’s something they haven’t been able to do.”