IMPACT

How This Inner-City Baltimore Principal Is 'Tearing Down Barriers' Between Students And Police

04/30/2015 08:52 am ET | Updated May 01, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

While some Baltimore students were met with consequences for their participation in the city’s fiery riots, punishing kids wasn’t on Nikkia Rowe’s agenda when classes resumed on Wednesday.

Rowe, the principal of Renaissance Academy, is more interested in making sure that the students at her low-income school, which abuts the city’s recent tensions, have the resources they need at this moment to become well-informed contributing members of society.

“Our strategy for reentry was to establish a sense of normalcy,” Rowe told The Huffington Post. “I’m deeply connected to the children -- to making sure they have information, that they are in a place of understanding, in terms of what is actually happening and in terms of what they’re seeing that may not necessarily be true.”

Rowe didn’t expect to see her city devolve into the worst outbreak of rioting in decades after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died of injuries he sustained while in police custody. But she was already preparing her students to better understand the law and to improve strained relationships with local police officials long before the first grenade was thrown, she told The Huffington Post.

As students poured into their West Baltimore school on their first day back after protests paralyzed the city, Rowe said she felt heartened by the systems that are equipping her students to respond effectively to abuses of power.

This year marked the first that Renaissance Academy, a school where 90 percent of students can’t afford lunch, offered courses on law and homeland security. Rowe sees these classes as critical components to helping her high-schoolers develop into civilly minded advocates.

"If I'm empowered to understand the law, I'm less likely to break the law," Rowe explained. "If I understand the law, I'm not going to become one of the 1.5 million that's missing from society. I'm able to advocate on behalf of myself and my community."

She couldn’t deny the courses’ effectiveness on Wednesday when the entire student body and staff partook in “restorative circles” to discuss their feelings on the death of Freddie Gray and the ensuing riots.

“This is not the best way to do it,” Rowe heard one student say about the violence and looting.

“Is this really about the cause or have we lost the cause in the process?” another student questioned.

While students used such emotions as disappointment, anger, sadness and frustration to describe their feelings about the fractious situation, they were also able to point to facts about the justice system, breeches of law and what they can expect to see at Friday’s indictment.

To help arm students with legal facts, which gives them applicable knowledge to respond to this very situation, Renaissance Academy partnered with local group Community Law in Action to write the curriculum for the school’s inaugural introduction to law course, which every student is required to take.

Students learn about landmark Supreme Court cases and how advocates have pushed for social justice.

The school’s course on homeland security has also opened up the students to pertinent criminal justice cases and has helped ease tensions among law enforcement.

Professionals in the field have visited the school to speak and the Academy also secured a partnership with the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). Ten students tour the training facility once a month in an effort to “tear down these barriers we see,” Rowe noted.

Students attended the cadets' graduation, and those officers will attend the students’ graduation when they finish high school in two years.

The program has enabled students to find common ground with law enforcement officials.

“Their stories are like mine,” is a common response Rowe hears when kids return from the BPD training facility.

In addition to teaching students how to act when accosted by cops, and inspiring students to get involved in community activism, Rowe impressed the need for her teens to get effective mentorship.

The ratio of African-American males to females at Renaissance Academy is two-to-one and Rowe is eager to expose her male students to mentors who will galvanize them to improve their community.

Rowe said she was particularly dismayed by the media coverage of the riots, which disproportionately featured the “bad stuff” and neglected to focus more attention on the peaceful protests and the positive leaders in the community.

She noted that such images inadvertently become “self-fulfilling prophecies,” as students see on loop images of masked African-American men setting fire to local stores.

“They’re not seeing themselves as Thurgood Marshall who became the first African-American Supreme Court justice,” Rowe said. “They see themselves through the negative images they encounter daily … our responsibility is to bring them back.”

Also on HuffPost:

  • Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Demonstrators climb on a destroyed Baltimore Police car in the street near the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues during violent protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, who was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A man dances in an intersection, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
  • Baltimore Sun/ABACA
    A Maryland Transit Authority patrol car burns at North and Pennsylvania Avenues on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
  • The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: People run as smoke and tear gas is thrown during a protest for Freddie Gray near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: People stand with their hands up as officers move toward them near a CVS pharmacy near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A man throws an object at officers during a protest for Freddie Gray near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A protestor yells as a CVS burns near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A man runs in front of officers during a protest for Freddie Gray near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Officers pepper spray people near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Officers look for people throwing objects at them near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A man who was pepper sprayed has his eyes washed out near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A man, center, shields himself after being struck after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A protestor, left, fights with a bar patron outside of a bar near Oriole Park at Camden Yards after a rally for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015, in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Police detain a man after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Two men are on the ground after being struck after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Men carry items, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A man dances in an intersection, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
  • Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
    WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: Fire Fighter attempt to put out a building that was set on fire during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
  • Baltimore Sun/ABACA
    Looters empty the CVS at Pennsylvania and North Avenues during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
  • Baltimore Sun/ABACA
    An injured police officer is carried away by his fellow officers on Westbury Avenue in Baltimore during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015. Photo by Erica Green/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
  • Baltimore Sun/ABACA
    A member of the Nation of Islam stands between protesters and police at North and Pennsylvania Avenues where riots broke out on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
  • Baltimore Sun/ABACA
    A protester with a stolen police vest taunts Baltimore police officers on Pennsylvania Avenue during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
  • Baltimore Sun/ABACA
    Police with shields face a man near the subway station at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD, USA, on Monday, April 27, 2015. People threw rocks at police and members of the media near the mall during riots Monday afternoon. Photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this frame from video provided by WJLA, people gather near a store Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Rioters plunged part of Baltimore, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (WJLA via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Baltimore police officers detain a demonstrator after the funeral of Freddie Gray, Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Baltimore police officers respond to demonstrators after the funeral of Freddie Gray, Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A police officer walks by a blaze, Monday, April 27, 2015, after rioters plunged part of Baltimore into chaos, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A demonstrator raises his fist as police stand in formation as a store burns, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A boy throws a brick at police, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this frame from video provided by WJLA, smoke rises from a store Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Rioters plunged part of Baltimore, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (WJLA via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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