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Baltimore is preparing for the trials of six police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray. He's the unarmed black man fatally injured while in police custody. Protests and violence that erupted after his funeral last spring shed light on the problems that have long plagued poor areas of Baltimore and other cities - high unemployment, crime, drugs. In West Baltimore where Gray grew up, there's a high school that tries to help black boys cope with this trauma and stress. It's hired mentors they can relate to, as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: At Renaissance Academy High School, just getting students to class every hour is a challenge, especially after lunch. Kids are hyped up.
MARCUS TAYLOR: Come on, Dayvon. Go to class, Dayvon, please. Come on, Brother.
LUDDEN: That's Marcus Taylor. He's a mentor but looks like a student - tall and thin in jeans and a sweatshirt.
TAYLOR: Anybody in here?
LUDDEN: Taylor checks the boys' bathroom then locks the door. Suddenly, there's commotion and cursing.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: Watch your mouth. Watch your mouth.
LUDDEN: A couple boys have taken off belts and swing at each other. Taylor moves in, loops his arm around one guy's neck, steers him away.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you so much - appreciate you.
LUDDEN: That happen a lot?
NIKKIA ROWE: I would say that every student in our building has experienced trauma, and at any given moment, something can trigger it.
LUDDEN: Principal Nikkia Rowe says two-thirds of the students here are boys. They've been neglected and physically abused in foster care and in jail. No wonder, she says, so many fail classes and get suspended. So she sought help. Last spring, Rowe brought on four African-American men to mentor 20 male students each.
ROWE: Ultimately it's about our children not necessarily having the benefit of relationships and my strong belief that human beings change their behavior based on deep interpersonal relationships.
LUDDEN: The mentors are full-time. There's some federal funding and help from a partnership with the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Now, they're not social workers or psychologists. Only one mentor has a college degree. But the men in their late 20s and early 30s bring something else.
TAYLOR: I ain't have a father. I grew up in a single family home myself. And I had two cousins - eight kids in one-bedroom house.
ANTWON COOPER: East side of Baltimore in hood environments, yes - hung in the projects, those things like that. So I've been around it.
LUDDEN: That's Marcus Taylor and Antwon Cooper. Daijeon Powell grew up not far from here in the same public housing complex as Freddie Gray.
DAIJEON POWELL: I know what it feel like to live in a house with no lights. I know what it feel like to open the refrigerator, there's no food.
COREY WITHERSPOON: Family was homeless, like, for a lot of my life.
LUDDEN: Corey Witherspoon and the others sit around a small table. They say they can show students there's a way out. Each came to this from other jobs - in business, in retail, professional sports, the Navy. Still, they say at first, the boys wanted nothing to do with them.
WITHERSPOON: They be like, I hate you; get away for me - yeah, yeah.
LUDDEN: It was the street mentality, says Cooper. Look out for yourself. Don't let anyone in your space.
COOPER: It was, why you talking to me? Why you saying good morning to me? Why you being so happy Bro? Like, what's up with you?
JALONE CARROLL: We're not used to that.
LUDDEN: Jalone Carroll is in 10th grade, though he's 20 and won't be able to stay in high school much longer.
CARROLL: Other schools I been to, they didn't really care. They just give you work. And if you ain't do it, you just didn't do it. You got a zero. But they actually care, you feel me? Like, I don't know. We think they're going to come in there, mess everything up then dip.
LUDDEN: Dip - disappear. I meet Jalone with two other students. At first, they're like, yeah, the mentors are cool, but we don't need them. That's for other kids. John Boyd is 18, a senior.
JOHN BOYD: I never grew up with my father, so I don't have the need to want anything from a man figure.
LUDDEN: But Boyd admits he was slacking off. Now his mentor asks to see his homework, even reads his essays. And he's just there if Boyd wants.
BOYD: If I ask him to come to visit me - like, he came to visit me on my prom 'cause I asked him to - and stuff like that.
AARON SMITH: Me, I took high school as a joke when I first came.
LUDDEN: Aaron Smith is 17 in 11th grade.
SMITH: I ain't never come to school, and that's when I started realizing, like, once they started telling me, you know, life ain't no joke. Get your high school diploma, and get out. I started taking it more serious. Now I come to school.
LUDDEN: A lot of the help comes after hours. Mentors take boys to movies. Taylor let one stay with him a couple nights when things were bad at home. Antwon Cooper says a boy recently texted him needing to talk.
COOPER: And I called him. And I was on the phone with him for an hour, and I didn't really say too much. He just talked because that's all he wanted, was somebody to listen to him.
LUDDEN: In school, mentors also listen and mediate when disputes break out.
LUDDEN: It's just before last period. A boy's rammed into a girl. She's shouting. They're pulled into a meeting - it's called a circle - with a deputy principal and mentor Cooper.
COOPER: You can understand why she's upset, though.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: Yeah. That's why I just told you. I said I understand. I was completely wrong.
LUDDEN: The boy says he was just playing. The girl slumps in a chair, sulking. This spat is small, but mentor Marcus Taylor says an argument outside school on Baltimore streets can easily turn violent.
TAYLOR: So we try to give them a sense dialogue on how to cooperate with a person - communication 'cause that's how they stay alive.
LUDDEN: Since Renaissance Academy's mentors started, suspensions are way down - grades, up. But principal Nikkia Rowe says the real measure of success, whether this can change the outcome, will come when school is out.
ROWE: So summer months, I hold my breath.
LUDDEN: She says that's when students don't have this safe place every day, and she gets calls like this one, last year.
ROWE: Ms. Rowe, do you know such and such? Yes, I do. What did he do? Oh, no, Ms. Rowe, he was murdered, and we can't locate his next of kin. And so when I say change the outcome, I mean them understanding, like, OK, I can be angry, but I can't pick up a gun, and this is why I can't.
LUDDEN: Rowe hopes getting that message will keep her students alive. For now, she's trying to find the money for more mentors. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Baltimore.
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