Favored Principal’s Firing Causes Outcry

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An outspoken principal, who openly protested violence in her school’s Northeast Baltimore community after one of her students was fatally shot last May, was abruptly dismissed from her job June 27. Parents, students and community leaders are now rallying for Dr. Camille Bell’s position at Montebello Elementary/ Junior Academy to be reinstated.

A cluster of the educator’s supporters held a demonstration at the school two days after her dismissal.

“This school needs Dr. Bell,” Shawnta Little said, her voice quivering. “She was here for me through everything.  When I say everything, I mean everything, and we need her.”

Little’s son, Sean Johnson, a 12-year-old student at Montebello, was gunned down while sitting on a front porch in Northeast Baltimore May 24. Three other teenagers were also wounded.

Bell was vocal about the need to curb violence, address Black-on-Black crime and create an action plan to prevent future tragedies like Johnson’s. She spoke at an anti-violence rally on the steps of city schools headquarters and took to television news airwaves to spread her fearless message.

“If we sit back in fear and say nothing, in essence what we’re saying is it’s OK to do this; kill more of our kids.  It’s not okay anymore,” Little told WJZ-TV during a May 26 interview.

At the rally for Bell’s job, City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, D-14, who represents Montebello’s district, said she attended a youth crime prevention meeting organized by Bell on June 27. At the gathering’s conclusion, Clarke said, the principal was handed a letter “that told her she wasn’t being renewed beyond the first of July.”

Officials at the New York-based Edison Learning, which manages Montebello Academy, would not disclose why Bell’s contract was not renewed.

“The bottom line is I can’t provide any information because this was a personnel matter,” Edison spokesman Michael Serpe said in a phone interview. He added that Edison works in “consultation” with Baltimore City Public Schools. “We don’t make specific decisions…. All I can say is that there was a change in leadership,” he explained.

But Edie House-Foster, spokeswoman for Baltimore City Public Schools, says all decisions regarding the school are handled by the New York contractor.

“They (Edison) hired her, but even if she were an employee of city schools, I wouldn’t comment because this is a personnel issue. But she is an employee of Edison Schools,” House-Foster said.

Cortly “CD” Witherspoon, one of the community activists that helped stage the protest in Bell’s support, said he believes city school leaders played a larger role in Bell’s dismissal than they are admitting. He contends that Bell was frank about what aspects of the school system needed to change to improve safety for youth and create healthy learning environments, but he’s not sure why her actions would compel school leaders to dismiss the principal.

“I don’t know why that would be a legitimate justification, but all indications link towards that,” Witherspoon said. “A month before her dismissal, she received a review from employers—stellar remarks…She was talking about things she wanted to do in the next school year, so that means that she had no idea her contract would not be renewed. This woman had every intention on being there.”

He said Bell supported Little and the family of Destiny Parker, a Montebello student that died of the H1N1 flu last year.

“She has brought a great deal to this school,” said parent, Constance Wheatly, whose four children and grandchildren attend the charter school. “She brought excellence. She had at least 750 to 800 students and she knew each student’s name, first and last. She loved them and she was there for them.”

Wheatly said Bell stayed late to help students, made regular calls to parents and developed various after-school programs during her five-year tenure at Montebello, including an award ceremony held every Friday, where students with improved grades or behavior could receive tickets to amusement parks and other prizes. Students also seemed to embrace Bell’s enduring, tough-love attitude.

“She was there for me when I needed her,” said Wheatly’s daughter, Sade, a sixth-grader. “If I got in trouble, she was always there to correct me and lead me in the right path.”

A group of roughly 60 parents plans to circulate a petition demanding that Bell return as the school’s principal.

“She was concerned about the community and she cared,” said Wheatly. “And we want her back.”