Should school police officers be armed? Md. school board revives question

Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in Maryland with a sworn school police force

By Talia Richman
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Much has changed since the last time state legislators considered whether Baltimore City schools police officers should be allowed to carry guns while patrolling the halls.

There have been a number of school shootings in the United States, including one in March at Great Mills High School in Southern Maryland. Baltimore has seen a significant increase in violent crime, along with highly publicized instances of alleged police brutality and a federal investigation that uncovered widespread discriminatory policing.

Depending on whom you ask, those events bolster an argument for why school police should — or should not — be allowed to carry guns while patrolling campuses. Parents, students and community members remain fiercely divided about the issue, just as they were when it was last considered in 2015.

The school board is bringing it back into the forefront, hosting a forum next week to gauge public support for the idea. The board doesn’t have the power to change the law — which prohibits school police from carrying guns during operating hours — but it can ask the legislature do so.

Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in Maryland with a sworn school police force. In surrounding counties, local police or sheriff’s departments patrol schools and are allowed to carry their weapons.

The roughly 90 city schools police officers are allowed to carry their service weapon while patrolling the exterior of a school building before and after school hours. But they are required to store their weapons in a secure location during the school day.

When the school board asked the Baltimore delegation in 2015 to change the law, it did so without seeking any public input.

When parents found out, many were livid. One mother launched a petition demanding the proposal be stopped. More than 1,700 people signed it, arguing that arming school police officers could be disproportionately detrimental to black children and also strengthen the school-to-prison pipeline.

Aimee Harmon-Darrow has now re-upped that petition. “Here we go again...” it reads.

The 2015 bill quickly died in Annapolis, after legislators and school board members acknowledged that the public outreach process was flawed.

School board chair Cheryl Casciani said the boardwon’t repeat past mistakes. The current board members haven’t talked about where they stand on the issue, she said.

“The board hasn't taken an official position on this and I don't want to do that until we have more public comment about this,” she said. “It’s about going to the community first this time.”

Casciani said now is the right time to revive the debate, as the district is in the midst of a broader conversation about the role of school police. In June, the board voted to approve a new set of school police policies and general orders aimed at keeping schools safe without criminalizing students.

Still, the board is likely to encounter a similar scene as in 2015. Divided politicians and community members are already planning to crowd into school system headquarters for the forum next Thursday.

Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the school police union, has been a fierce advocate for arming the officers. The idea of sworn, trained police “running around with empty holsters” shouldn’t happen in American policing, he says.

“I would hope that a little bit of common sense kicks in,” Boatwright said. “The decision-makers need to fix it, and fix it now.”

Until the law is amended, Boatwright said, Baltimore is in danger of joining a grim list of cities that have experienced a deadly school shooting, such as Littleton, Colo., Newtown, Conn., and Parkland, Fla.

He pointed to a recent incident at Maree G. Farring Elementary/Middle School, in which two students brought guns to school and one was fired in a school bathroom. No one was injured and the gun was never used to threaten others, according to district officials, but the event shook the Brooklyn community.

At least three guns were recovered in city schools last year. School police also responded to 35 lockdowns, and 14 “reverse alerts,” which occur when there is a shooting in close proximity to a school, Boatwright said.

“Time is of the essence. Each day we recover another gun, we’re rolling the dice. We've gone from recovering guns to guns being fired in schools,” he said. “The question is: Who is going to be held responsible when these guns are used to strike a student?”

But others are concerned that arming school police opens the possibly that an officer’s gun could be used to strike a student — particularly a student of color.

Harmon-Darrow, the mother of two city school students who created the petition, recalled the arguments made in 2015.

“They said they were concerned about another Newtown. Our counter was that we were concerned about another Ferguson,” she said, making reference to the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man who was shot by police in Missouri.

Harmon-Darrow said school shootings remain extremely rare, but gun violence on Baltimore’s streets is painfully commonplace.

“We live in a terribly violent city,” she said. “A school should not be looking like prison. A school should look like a place where our expectation is that you’re going to grow up, have a career and thrive as an adult.”

The youth-led community organizing group Youth As Resources spearheaded the creation of an annual school police “report card,” and the second iteration came out in July. The survey showed that the majority of Baltimore students say school police make them feel safe, but roughly half believe police use force when dealing with conflicts.

Those opposed to arming officers are quick to point to a 2016 incident at REACH Partnership, where cellphone footage captured a school police officer slapping and kicking a student inside the building.

Tori Grace, 16, was a student at REACH when the assault took place. She’s now a board member at Youth As Resources, which is against the idea of arming officers. Grace said she believes it would be dangerous, and could potentially deter students from coming to school.

School police chief Akil Hamm — who took over the force after the REACH incident — wrote in an email that the department hasn’t “received a complaint for excessive force, discourtesy or false arrest with the civilian review board for the past two school years involving student/police interactions.”

Chris Battaglia, principal of Benjamin Franklin High School at Masonville Cove, supports arming the officers. He worries about what his students are taking away from this heated debate.

“We’re sending a message to young people that even the adults don't trust police with their weapon,” he said. “We have to do a better job as a society of having kids and people in authority be able to understand each other. Schools are the perfect place to do that.”

Battaglia has worked in two other Maryland districts — Baltimore and Harford counties — where police assigned to schools have carried weapons without incidents.

“I just think our kids deserve the same protection from outside elements as all the suburban kids,” he said. “I'm not equipped to stop someone from doing harm. A police officer is — well, he is if he is allowed to be.”

Juvenile public defender Jenny Egan questions what data exist to support arguments that arming police would stop a potential school shooting.

“I don’t want us to use those fears and rhetoric to make policy. Our policy has be based on evidence and reality,” she said. “More guns in school are not going to make our kids safer.”

These discussions are only a precursor of what is possible in Annapolis next session.

Del. Cheryl Glenn personally supports allowing city school police to carry their weapons. She said she hasn’t talked with all the others in the delegation about their stances.

“You would have to have your head in the sand to think it wouldn't be an issue up for discussion and/or legislation,” she said.

Del. Curt Anderson, who was one of the sponsors in 2015, echoed Glenn. He said the main reason the legislation failed in 2015 was that the school board never talked about it with community groups. If they go forward with the proper process, he said, the end result could be much different.

But there are still fierce opponents within the Baltimore delegation. Del. Mary Washington said “guns in schools do not make anyone safer.”

“The solution is not further criminalization,” she said. “It’s engaging with social workers, it’s addressing issues of trauma and access to weapons. That’s the solution.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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