Harford County's school sytem has banned field trips to Baltimore indefinitely, citing safety concerns following the unrest over the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent trials of police officers charged in his death.
City leaders called the decision misguided and ill-informed, saying it denies Harford schoolchildren cultural, educational and recreational opportunities and reinforces negative stereotypes about the city.
"When I heard about this continuing ban on school travel to Baltimore, I was, frankly, totally flummoxed. It seems so outrageous as to be actually sad," said Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat. "Harford County Public Schools is doing an enormous disservice to its students and families with this bizarre policy."
Harford school administrators had extended their initial spring suspension of school trips and made it indefinite on Jan. 11. City leaders scoffed at the idea that Baltimore isn't safe for children to visit.
"We are afraid the lesson being taught to the children of Harford County is to fear the city, and that is disappointing," said Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
After the riots of April 27, school systems around the region canceled field trips. That policy changed within a month as the city returned to normal. But when the trial of the first police officer charged in Gray's death got underway in December, some school systems, including Baltimore County and Harford County, again canceled trips.
All other counties have since lifted the prohibition, but Harford County took a different view.
"The travel restrictions were implemented strictly for the safety of the students based on information we received from various law enforcement agencies, including the Baltimore City Police Department, following the riots and relating to potential issues that may occur during the first and subsequent trials," Jillian Lader, a spokeswoman for the Harford schools, said in a statement.
She said the school system had been deciding on field trips on a week-by-week basis every Monday after a briefing with law enforcement officials, but the process became difficult for planning purposes. Teachers and principals didn't know from one week to the next whether they would be able to go on a trip, so the administration decided to suspend the trips.
State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, called the decision misguided and narrow-minded.
"Baltimore City offers some of the state's richest and most engaging cultural learning opportunities," he said. "To deprive students the chance to experience these amazing assets is short-sighted and uninformed."
Libit said the mayor finds it disappointing that children have been blocked from "experiencing many of the cultural amenities of Baltimore City, including everything from the Baltimore Museum of Art and the National Aquarium to the musical performances at the Lyric and the Meyerhoff." Harford County families come to the city regularly to worship, work and visit family, he said.
City leaders said they believe the county's actions are a slap at the cultural and economic center of the state. "What happened to One Maryland?" asked Lierman.
But Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, said he won't criticize Harford officials.
"Harford has got to do what they have to do to keep their students safe," Anderson said. "If Harford County feels they have to do it, then who am I to question?"
Anderson said legislators are concerned about the safety of city children in their own neighborhoods.
Baltimore County made a different decision based on the muted response after a mistrial was declared in mid-December in the case of Officer William G. Porter, when jurors said they had failed to reach an agreement on any of the charges against him in the death of Gray.
Gray's death in late April after being injured in the back of a police van spurred protests and a day of rioting. It was one of a series of deaths to draw national attention to the issue of police brutality toward black people. Six police officers have been charged in connection with the West Baltimore man's death.
"We monitored what happened during the first trial," said Mychael Dickerson, a spokesman for Baltimore County schools. "There were no issues, and we didn't hear concerns from our schools."
He said the central office generally leaves decisions about field trips to leaders of individual schools, and only rarely does the superintendent step in to suspend field trips without extensive discussions with staff.
Some Harford County residents also expressed concern following the decision to suspend trips. In particular, parents were angered when their children were not allowed to participate in regional sports tournaments.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Harford officials decided to allow athletic teams to make trips to the city. "Those events tend to be more secure, and they are more regulated," Lader said.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she hoped Harford's children would come back.
"We are here to welcome them when they come back. We are sorry they are missing so many wonderful things."