Citing 'escalating violence,' Carroll County school officials halt field trips to Baltimore

Carroll County school officials have halted school-related trips to Baltimore — including a marching band’s scheduled performance in the Mayor’s Christmas Parade on Sunday — citing “escalating violence” in the city, a spokeswoman said Monday.

Schools spokeswoman Carey Gaddis said the order is based on a recommendation from the county Sheriff’s Office, and will stay in place until the beginning of the next semester in late January, when it will be revisited. She said the order was sent to school principals last week.

Sheriff James T. DeWees recommended the measure during a meeting with school system officials “in response to parent concerns regarding the safety of students during field trips to venues in Baltimore City,” according to a statement from the sheriff’s office. The move is intended to “limit the risk to students and staff.”

“In light of recent violence in the traditional tourist areas of the city, the sheriff agrees that the best course of action is to temporarily suspend travel to Baltimore City venues,” spokesman Cpl. Jonathan Light wrote in the statement.

This month the city’s homicide count surpassed 300 for the third year in a row. Residents in some neighborhoods have complained of more assaults and robberies in recent months.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh recently called crime in the city “out of control” and ordered 30 agency heads to attend daily meetings at the Police Department.

Nevertheless, the mayor is “disappointed by the Carroll County Public Schools decision and hopes that they will reconsider,” spokesman Anthony McCarthy said in a statement.

“The events and sights the students were set to participate in and visit are unique and represent positive experiences for these young people,” McCarthy said.

Field trips are still being considered on a “case-by-case basis,” Gaddis said, but the policy has caused at least two forthcoming trips to be canceled: a planned field trip Friday to the Maryland Science Center by third-grade students from Westminster Elementary School, and Francis Scott Key High School’s band appearance in the Christmas parade in Hampden.

Both schools cited the county’s new policy as the reason for the cancellations.

“Due to escalating violence reported in Baltimore City, and consultation with law enforcement and Maryland Center for School Safety, we will not be sending any students on field trips to Baltimore City at this time,” said an email sent to Westminster parents and guardians Nov. 22.

Gaddis said the school system is most concerned about field trips in which students are allowed time and freedom to roam.

“When they’re not contained but they’re walking around an area, walking around the city ... we don’t have as much control,” she said. The Sheriff’s Office does not send a deputy along with students on field trips, she said.

School officials said the decision followed an email that DeWees, Superintendent Stephen Guthrie and members of the Board of Education received from a Hampstead Elementary School parent. The parent said a school class was visiting the Maryland Science Center on a field trip Nov. 3, at the same time police were taking a 15-year-old into custody at nearby Rash Field with a “replica” gun.

DeWees responded to the email, expressing “great concern about school trips to the city.”

“I have three children in [Carroll County Public Schools] and will not allow them in Baltimore City without me present,” the sheriff wrote.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, acknowledged recent crime but called the school system’s decision to call off field trips “frustrating.”

“There are 300,000 people in Downtown every day, and sometimes disagreements occur or someone takes advantage of someone else,” Fowler said. “There are few, if any, incidents I know of of violence affecting school trips in the city. … Thousands of families in the city are taking their children to school, church and attractions, and will continue to do so.”

In 2015, following the rioting after the death of Freddie Gray, several school systems around the region, including Carroll, temporarily canceled field trips to Baltimore.

School officials in Anne Arundel, Cecil, Frederick, Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties said they have no plans to cancel field trips now.

Gaddis said Carroll County officials could not recall any previous incidents on field trips to the city. Board of Education President Devon Rothschild said she found the recommendation confusing because no incident of violence was cited but “as a board, we obviously cannot ignore the recommendation of the sheriff.”

Other Carroll County schools have sent bands to perform in the mayor’s Christmas parade in past years, but this would have been the first for Francis Scott Key High School in Union Bridge.

Thomas Kerr, chairman of the annual holiday parade, said he was notified of the decision by the school’s band director.

“I was really taken aback by it,” Kerr said. “It was a great band. We had a sponsor for them and everything.”

School bands from Baltimore County and Baltimore City, and from Philadelphia and Virginia, are scheduled to perform. Kerr does not expect other school cancellations.

The parade is in its 45th year and is expected to include at least 115 balloons, floats, bands and groups of marchers, making it one of the area’s largest holiday parades. Though named for the mayor, the parade is funded through donations and private fundraising, including sponsorships of floats and bands, Kerr said.

He said he was “disheartened” that crime in the city was discouraging people from coming to a fun and positive event for the city.

“Where does it end?” he asked. “We’re trying to get something good in the city and that’s what we do — we get real good crowds, people come from all over the city.”

Joanie Mayle, president of the Francis Scott Key Instrumental Music Boosters, said the group supports the move to suspend field trips to the city.

“As a parent and volunteer, I appreciate that our children's safety is and continues to be the highest priority at CCPS,” Mayle wrote.

Delegate Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat who lives downtown, called the notion that the city is unsafe for visitors “misguided and disappointing.”

“While we are experiencing an uptick in crime, there’s no denying that, it is still a safe place to visit and walk around and explore our cultural sites,” she said. “I love living in Downtown Baltimore and want and hope students from around the state can come visit the great neighborhoods and institutions we have in the city.”

Andy Smith, the Hampstead parent who sent the email to the sheriff and school officials, said he is satisfied with the school system’s decision.

"This is one of those things where being overly cautious is probably the best policy, rather than waiting for something to happen that you can’t undo,” Smith said.

Gaddis said any parents who have concerns about the canceled trips should call their school principal.

“We’re trying to keep in mind the safety of our students,” she said. “That’s something we have to pay attention to.”

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Catalina Righter and Baltimore Sun reporters Sarah Gantz and Talia Richman contributed to this article.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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