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Jorge's Reign of Terror

A tale of schools and sharp objects

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Jorge Luis Marin's reign of terror at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools lasted for more two years.

Before Marin made headlines last week for leading Charlotte-Mecklenburg police on a high-speed chase in a stolen car after trying to run over a police officer, he was well known among the teachers at two Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

Police classify Marin as a "known" MS-13 gang member, and after his arrest last week, he admitted to authorities that he came to this country illegally three years ago. He claims to be 16, but folks at the sheriff's department think he's older.

Marin has an affinity for sharp objects and developed a habit of threatening teachers and students with them; the pattern at both Sedgefield and Coulwood middle schools went like this. Sometimes Marin would be busted for bringing knives to school before he got a chance to use them. He'd be suspended and then sent right back in the classroom. Other times, he'd be suspended for threatening students with knives. On other occasions, he'd actually attempt to use them. CMS officials apparently thought that the 10-day suspension they gave Marin for slashing at another Coulwood student with a knife during a fight on a school bus in February 2005 would get his attention.

It didn't. In another case at Coulwood, Marin threatened and then attempted to stab a teacher with a pencil because the teacher told him he couldn't leave the classroom. When the teacher threatened to fight back if Marin kept lunging at him, Marin sharpened the pencil and came at the teacher again. CMS officials handed Marin another 10-day suspension.

I bring this up because Superintendent Peter Gorman has now thrown down the reform gauntlet. He says he's going to fix the four worst performing high schools in the system by getting tough on ... teachers. He says he's going to give $15,000 signing bonuses and merit pay to recruit top teachers to these schools and fire those who can't get results. If that doesn't work, he'll force talented teachers to transfer into these schools.

As the reporter who first broke the news here of the desperate disparity between teacher qualifications and experience in suburban schools verses those low-income schools, I couldn't be happier. It's a much needed first step in the right direction. Too bad Gorman's plan is destined to fail miserably.

Why? Because it ignores completely the real reason these teachers won't teach in these schools.

Sure, many of these kids are poor, unprepared and often uninterested. But for a talented teacher, those can be conquerable challenges if they've got the support they need from school administrators to keep order in their classrooms.

The real reason they won't teach in these schools is CMS' long-term lack of interest in removing kids like Jorge Luis Marin from the classroom. For years, they've threatened teachers every day in our schools. One teacher at Waddell High School told me that she was terrified to return this year. Last year, her assistant was a big hulk of a man who could keep kids like the one who kept telling her he was going to "f---" her under control. This year, she won't have him by her side and she has little confidence in administrators.

There is a deliberate laissez faire attitude that pervades the discipline structure all the way up to school safety chief Ralph Taylor. Until Mr. Gorman cracks down on that, mid-level bureaucrats will keep returning human debris back to these schools and no amount of money will keep good teachers in them.

Before CMS stopped asking the question last year on its annual student survey, large majorities of the kids at the four high schools Gorman plans to target -- Garinger, Waddell, West Charlotte and West Mecklenburg -- said they didn't feel safe at school. Large majorities of kids in suburban schools say they do feel safe. So how do you think the teachers feel?

The greatest irony of Marin's knife-wielding career at CMS is that in every case where he was caught with a knife or BB gun before he had a chance to use it, it was other students who turned him in. They are as sick of this as the teachers are, Mr. Gorman. That these kids are allowed to remain at low-income schools and create an atmosphere that denies good kids at these schools good teachers is the height of discrimination. Twenty-seven percent of the teachers at West Charlotte left their jobs last year because it's just not worth putting up with two or three Jorge Luis Marins in every classroom.

It will be easy for Gorman to go to the county commission and get more money to pay more teachers. It's easy to fire those who don't produce results and to force those who do to move into those schools. Standing up to school board members who have balked at removing violent students from our classrooms in the past would be tougher.

But it's what it will take to create an atmosphere where talented teachers can teach. If Mr. Gorman isn't willing to do that, he has no business asking, or forcing, these teachers to teach in these schools.

Got a story idea? E-mail Tara at tara.servatius@creativeloafing.com.

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