Deadly Lessons

From the outside, Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn is an inner-city fortress-a four-story pile of faded brick with security screens on the windows and steel plate on the doors. Guns are as familiar as book bags to the kids inside. "If you had the money, you could get yourself a 'tool' in 15 minutes," says Nicole Solomon, a 15-year-old sophomore. "I would say, out of 100 kids, 90 got guns or can get them. I had a weapon myself when I first went in there." Glenn Kirkland, now a city police officer assigned to the school, attended "Jeff " a decade ago. "Back then we used to duke it out," he says. "Now you hear these guys: 'Hey, you stole my girlfriend, boom!' Then his friends say, 'Hey, you shot my friend, boom!' Pretty soon it's boom, boom, boom!"

The cop knew his beat: across the country, kids with guns are becoming small angels of death, transforming dead-end streets and tough-luck schools into free-fire zones. "Our last place of safety is the school," says Carol A. Beck, Jeff's embattled principal. "Next to Mother's arms, that should be the safest place." No longer. Drug gangs have put more guns on the street than ever before. But many kids who aren't otherwise criminals are suddenly reaching for their equalizers. And guns have become the leading cause of death among older teenage boys-white and black-in America.

No school has felt the pain more than Jefferson High. Last week New York's Mayor David N. Dinkins booked a stop to show the flag and give a speech. The same day, Khalil Sumpter, 15, allegedly smuggled in a chrome-plated.38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. Police say he had murder on his mind and two bullets in his gun, and that Sumpter was going after Tyrone Sinkler, 16, and his inseparable buddy, Ian Moore, 17. Sumpter and Sinkler had been partners in a botched mugging last spring. Sinkler did time, Sumpter got probation, and they had been fighting about it ever since. "He called me a rat," Sumpter told the police. He thought Sinkler meant to kill him and he decided to strike first. "He indicated it was kill or be killed," said Detective Sgt. Michael Race.

With cinematic timing, the bang-bang-you're-dead fantasy turned into bloody reality. The morning of the shooting, Moore's mother, Linda, rustled him out of bed and pointed him toward school. He'd been up late watching the Grammys on TV. Sinkler hit his father for 60 cents because he needed lunch money. Sumpter arrived late. He was well known to school cops as a "hallwalker," a kid more interested in hanging out than sitting in class. When the bell rang at the end of first period, Moore and Sinkler stepped into the hallway together, where Sumpter was waiting. "He just pulled the gun and started shooting," eyewitness Rafael Montalvo, 15, told Newsday. "Wasn't no words said, no hands thrown-just bullets hitting." David Lerner, a teacher on duty as a hall monitor, pushed through the screaming kids and looked down at the victims. "The officer was already pressing his finger against their necks," he recalled.

A hundred students, some weeping, some numb, gathered in the school's six "grieving rooms," struggling to cope with what they had seen: Sinkler in convulsions bleeding from the head, Moore lying still, shot through the heart. "It's sad to go to school like this," said Marvin McLaurin, 16. "It makes you feel like an animal." Marlon Smith, a 16-year-old friend of the victims, left for home in hysterics. He later phoned a friend, who heard a clicking sound over the line and asked what it was. "I'm playing Russian roulette," Smith replied. Then he pulled the trigger again and killed himself. Sinkler's anguished father threatened to sue the city. "Why in the world was there a gun in school?" he said. "Now my son's in the morgue over some bulljive."

The shootings added three more bodies to an awful calculation: kids with guns have set off their own kind of arms race. The latest murders made it New York City's bloodiest school year ever, with 56 shooting incidents in and around schools. In all, 5 teachers, 1 cop, 2 parents and 16 students have been shot-6 of the kids fatally. "These children are children of war," Beck says. "They worry that in the blink of an eye they could be killed-this is a reality--and they think they have to protect themselves." A kid can now be "carrying" for as little as $25. In Brooklyn they even have rent-a-guns. Says Beck, "You could find a gun in this neighborhood faster than you could find a copy of NEWSWEEK."

Sumpter's gun was stolen, "used" in street talk, so it wasn't too expensive. Other tools cost plenty. Last November a furious argument over a book bag led a 14-year-old at Jefferson High to whip out his "nine," a 9-mm semiautomatic pistol that can cost as much as $1,000. He fired wildly down a crowded hallway at Jefferson High. The fusillade killed Darrell Sharpe, 16, and wounded teacher Robert Anderson in the neck. Both were innocent bystanders.

The larger tragedy was Jefferson High had far more to offer than the way of the gun and an early grave. If the measure of a good school is how well it helps its students rise above their limitations Jefferson High was exemplary. The East New York neighborhood runs to public-housing projects and vacant lots, glass-strewn streets under elevated subways. On cul-de-sacs outside abandoned houses, young men stake out turf. When strangers approach, they thrust their hands deep in their pockets or under their jackets, a signal every boy in the 'hood, along with every man, woman and child, understands.

By comparison, Jeff seemed to promise at least the illusion of a safe haven. Step inside, pass the metal detectors and the security detail, and you were in another world. The floors were clean, the brightly painted walls were decked with quotations from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, and posters exhorting kids to get their diplomas (DON'T LEAVE SCHOOL WITHOUT IT). A remarkable number didn't. Most students are black or Hispanic, with a smattering from 27 foreign countries. Last school year, 81 percent applied to college-from a high school in an urban wasteland.

Principal Beck relished a good fight. Two weeks before the shooting, she suffered a heart attack-but it didn't slow her down. With school officials and students swirling around her last week, she was on the telephone telling a caller, "I'm pissed because I can't go kick butt and solve this." Someone thrust a fistful of pills at her, insisting she take them before another distraction could come up. Some were for her ulcer, others for her heart. "It's nothing," she said. "If I couldn't stand the heat, I'd get out of the kitchen."

When Beck took over in 1987, Jeff was a school with an illustrious past, a lousy present and no future. Only one in four ninth graders was staying on to earn diplomas. Earlier waves of immigrant East New Yorkers--Italians, Irish and Jewish-had filled Jeff's roster with celebrities, among them Shelley Winters, Steve Lawrence and Danny Kaye. Beck brought some of them back to meet the students. When H. Donald Gelber, another alumnus, was sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Mali last year, the principal bused many of the students to the ceremony at the United Nations. "What I have done, you can do," he told them. Beyond offering role models, the principal threw her own office door open to students, working late in the evenings, partly so that kids would have a place to stay off the streets. "Some of them would rather be here than in their own homes," said Helen Baker, a teacher. Beck recruited a staff that was fiercely loyal to her and to the students. The Reader's Digest gave her one of its American Heroes in Education Awards in 1991, donating a $10,000 prize to the school.

In the end, she was outgunned. For a while, she was able to cut the crime rate in half by banning gold chains and door-knocker earrings. But over the past year Jefferson High has seen four stabbings among 35 reported crimes. Beck took a survey and found that half her students had puncture wounds of some kind. On any given day, a fourth of them were absent, hanging on the corners or hustling drugs. Many were too scared to come to class. No wonder. Since December, spot searches have turned up 121 weapons.

Jefferson could excel, but it couldn't escape. Perhaps it was naive for anyone to expect it to. "What really gets people is that this happened in a school, " says Beck. After last fall's shooting, the city made Jeff one of 21 "metal-detector schools," but there were only enough funds to spot-check for weapons once a week. Last week that check was on Tuesday. The shooting was on Wednesday. Now there will be metal detectors every day. Too late for Moore and Sinkler. Turning things around, says teacher Lerner, is "like trying to throw bricks into the Grand Canyon to fill it." And it takes a lot more than bricks to fight guns.

It is already New York City's bloodiest school year ever, with 56 shooting incidents in and around schools. Some of them:

Parent shot in back by pellet or BB gun.

Student, 17, shot and killed.

14-year-old shot in stomach. killed. PS 178,

Student shot in legs.

Student, 19, shot in back by gang of armed intruders in school hallway.

Teacher shot in left arm on street.

A student shot three students, killing one 18-year-old.

Student, 16, killed and teacher wounded in hall.

Police officer shot on street by student.

Two students (13 and 11) wounded when another student fired into playground.