In mid-March, Markel Scott, a 19-year-old senior at Excel Academy in Baltimore, was fatally shot in the head. He became the alternative school’s fourth student to die from gun violence since October. The school, which serves grades 6 through 12, offers a second chance to those who have struggled or fallen behind, but are determined to earn a high school diploma. Excel’s principal, Tammatha Woodhouse, talked to The Trace about what it’s like to run a school in a city where young black men are fatally shot almost every day.

It was Friday morning. I was at school, preparing for a professional development day with my staff, when I heard screaming. It wasn’t a normal scream, so I ran out of my office to see what it was. A teacher was yelling, “Not another one, not him.” I knew we had lost a student, I just didn’t know who.

I felt shock, then devastation and exhaustion. I’ve never experienced a year where I had four funerals in six months. And at my school, when there is a loss, it’s usually due to gun violence.

I told the staff that we’d lost another student, and that we needed to figure out how we, as a school, could safeguard our kids. Mostly my fears are about when they leave here every day … what are they going into? I also live in Baltimore City, but I’m not at a high risk to encounter some of the violent behavior that plagues our city like they are.

Tammatha Woodhouse
Tammatha Woodhouse

The students came back to school on Monday. Our goal was to try to rebuild their sense of security – not just within the school, but within the world. Sure, we could all get in a room and be sad, but I wanted to use the crisis as an opportunity. I wanted to help the kids understand how they can begin to protect themselves. So did Markel’s mother. She wanted to know: “How do we take his death and put something in action that helps stop another kid from being killed from gun violence?”

I gave teachers an article by a professor at Yale. It’s about treating gun violence as an epidemic, the way we do with HIV. I felt that the important takeaway for my kids was the idea that bad behavior of people in your social network – your friends and neighbors and relatives – can place you at high risk if you’re interacting with them on a daily basis. Some of the students could relate to the idea of changing your friends. Like, “If I don’t smoke marijuana, why am I hanging out with folks who smoke it?”

I felt like this was an opportunity for us to equip our kids with some academic research on gun violence while allowing them to talk about that grief of losing a fellow student. The students read the article, jotting notes and questions in the margins, and then they began to talk about what they’d written.

The exercise provided a safe way to discuss Markel’s death. Being able to have a conversation about your feelings is really important, especially in an alternative school, because most kids don’t want to look like a softie in front of their peers.

“These kids will tell you in a heartbeat that they need a therapist. They’re not afraid of that. They just don’t want to talk in front of everyone else.”

Tammatha Woodhouse

You get mixed views when you deal with kids. Some were saying, “Baltimore is what it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” But another group was saying, “OK. If I change some people, places and things, I might have a chance.”

Those reactions gave me hope. It let me know that kids realize, “OK, I am in a dangerous situation. I am exposed to gangs or gun violence. So how do I protect myself?”

Another way our school tried to help was by having three school social workers and a school psychologist available to everyone for two full days. We actually had to get an additional crisis team to help us because our school social workers needed to grieve, too. Then we had hotline numbers for those who needed additional support.

These kids will tell you in a heartbeat that they need a therapist. They’re not afraid of that. They just don’t want to talk in front of everyone else.

They’re brilliant kids who encounter a lot of barriers to academic success. Our school has high rates of poverty, homelessness, teen parents, and kids involved with the department of juvenile justice.

So how do we give them hope? One of my challenges is to expose my kids to more things beyond their neighborhood. So if you want to be a barber, how do I get you to be a barber? If you want to be an engineer, how do I get some engineers in my building? And allow you to meet folks that look like you, who come from the same places that you’ve come from but have overcome and been successful?

Many of these kids show up every day because they don’t want to repeat generational cycles. They want to be that first-generation kid who graduates from high school. They want to be proud of themselves. 

But before we can even address academics, I have to deal with the socio-emotional issues preventing them from behaving well and from being academically successful.

It could be that a kid is coming to school without enough to eat, or he may have been raised by a grandmother who is terminally ill. Nevermind the environmental PTSD that my students may be undergoing. When you grow up in an environment with constant violence, you’re going to have post-traumatic stress disorder. You’re going to be paranoid or anxious.

It’s my job to deal with all that. One, I have to make the kids feel safe, and understand that they don’t have to run away. Two, we teach a set of skills to handle conflict so that they don’t have to fight their way through. And after all their needs are met, then we can focus on instruction to get the kids to graduate.

Sure, sometimes I feel like that’s a lot for a school to take on. But, working at an alternative school, that’s the job I signed up to do.

Markel would have been been walking across the graduation stage on June 2, and we plan to honor him during the ceremony. Our community always tries to recognize those we’ve lost. One of the other students who died this year did a lot in the art department. When the students exhibited their artwork at the annual festival, his work was there, too. I wanted his family to know we remember him.