When city school police officer Joseph Baribeault attempted to arrest two combative students at the old Greenspring Middle School, he ended up injured at the bottom of two flights of concrete stairs.
Even though the city has acknowledged his disabilities from the incident, he has been left without pay and benefits for being injured in the line of duty — all because members of the School Police Force are classified as civilians in Baltimore's pension system
"In July, I got a life-saving award, and months later, I'm on food stamps," said Baribeault, 36, who retired this year because of his injuries after seven years on the force. "We're held to the same standard as [the city Police Department], but when we get hurt, we're out the door."
As cities across the country debate placing police officers or armed guards in schools, those who have been protecting Baltimore students for decades are fighting to overhaul a policy that they say denies officers pay and benefits when they are seriously injured on the job.
Baltimore school police officers face a high standard — they have to lose half a limb or a body function to receive the same benefits afforded to their law enforcement counterparts around the state.
The department's union leaders say that the recent string of high-profile school shootings around the country, including one in neighboring Baltimore County, highlights the need to protect those whose duty it is to step into the line of fire.
"The expectation is that our officers would throw themselves between danger and the children of Baltimore City," said Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge that represents the 142-member force. "But we're expected to do it without those built-in safeguards to protect us and our families, like every other law enforcement officer in Maryland has."
The city school police is the only force in the state solely designated to protecting a public school system. Officers are armed, undergo the same training as Baltimore police and have citywide jurisdiction.
In addition to protecting Baltimore's 85,000 students, school police officers are regularly called upon to supplement city policing efforts by providing extra patrols at the Inner Harbor and manning large events such as the recent Ravens Super Bowl victory parade.
With a physical examination and a doctor's note, most disabled public safety officers — including Baltimore police officers, officers who patrol university campuses and Maryland Transportation Authority police — can apply to obtain line-of-duty benefits equaling two-thirds of their pay, in addition to an annuity of their pension.
But city school officers have to prove they have suffered a 50 percent anatomical loss or the function of a body part, or 25 percent loss of two, to receive the same benefits.
"We operate under the mindset of 'Serve, protect — just don't get hurt,'" Boatwright said.
Union and school system officials are working on a plan to address the issue. It would require a shift to the city's fire and police pension systems or the state's law enforcement pension system, or a move by the City Council to eliminate the 50 percent threshold. The union would prefer to be under the state's law enforcement pension system.
City officials said they would be open to discussing how school police benefits can be aligned with other law enforcement.
"It's something that we have to have a serious conversation about when you're talking about people who put their lives on the line," said City Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee.
But the move would come as the city looks for ways to overhaul its pension system, including requiring more city workers to contribute to their retirement funds, and the police and fire departments to shift to a 401(k) plan.
"We know now in this country that there is no such thing as schools being too safe," Scott said. "But everything we do has to take into consideration not just today's emotions, and not just today's issues, but 10, 20, 30 years down the line."
Currently, school police officers often have to go through lengthy hearing processes before the city's pension board, and some have taken legal action to obtain the benefit. Officers can file claims within five years of an injury. Union leaders say that the force logs an average of about 30 injuries per year.
By the time many emerge from the process, officers and union leaders say, they find themselves on the losing end.
Baribeault, who served in various law enforcement agencies across the state for 16 years, said he gave up his dream job as a narcotics detective to join the city school police in 2005.
"I did this to be a better father, police officer and person," he said. "Ultimately this police department and school system punished me for it. They have always known we were in the wrong pension and still sent us out into potential danger as 'civilians.'"
In 2007, according to an incident report, he was injured when he was assaulted at Greenspring Middle School. His case was reopened last year because of continuing pain, and a city doctor determined in December that he could not return to duty.
On Feb. 20, the city's pension board accepted that 45 percent of his leg and 15 percent of his nervous system had sustained injury in the line of duty.
While his total percentage loss exceeded the threshold, he didn't meet the specific standards of a 25 percent usage loss of two body parts, or 50 percent of one.
"So I'm completely [out of luck]," said Baribeault, a father of four who has been taking care of his family on an Independence Card, or food stamp benefit, and medical assistance.
Last week, he found out he will receive a fraction of his salary for his years of service as a city police officer, which would come to about $500 a month after taxes. He's hoping for workers' compensation — which will be offset by his small pension — for about four months while he looks for another job.
Had he received the line-of-duty retirement, he would have received between $32,000 and $35,000 a year. The starting salary for a city school police officer is $41,000.
The origin of the issue dates back decades, when the school police department's evolution to a sworn force was never acknowledged in the city's pension system.
In 1991, Gov. William Donald Schaefer signed legislation to boost the responsibilities of the School Police Force — transitioning the department from a "security division" of the school system to a sworn force, certified by the Maryland Police Training Commission.
But some officers say the school system still sees them as a second-rate police force.
"Everybody considers us security until something breaks out and we're running into the thick of things," said Mike Henry, a school police officer of 10 years who was injured on the job and retired in 2008, without a line-of-duty pension.
"We are important when situations arise, and to make everybody feel safer when the school system needs to prove they're being [responsive]. Once those situations are out of the limelight, we're back to security."
Henry, 48, said he was injured in 2007 confronting an out-of-town gang member who tried to enter Forest Park High School to settle a score over students wearing rival gang bandanna colors.
In the tussle, Henry said, he sustained injuries to his neck area, requiring surgery that removed nerves from his arm and hand to place in his neck. He didn't meet the 50 percent disability threshold and has been receiving workers' compensation since 2008. It will run out this year.
"I don't know how many lives I saved that day, but I did know that person wasn't getting into my building," Henry said. "It's very hurtful that you put your life on the line to protect our youth, but when the time came for me to be protected, I was treated like a number — of how much they could save the city."
City school officials said they weren't able to tackle the pension issue until last year, when the School Police Force shifted from the City Union of Baltimore, which represents the city's civilian employees, to the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents law enforcement.
The department's new contract has called for city schools and union officials to explore what it would take to include the department in the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers' Pension Plan.
Under that plan, school police would receive the same benefits as other police forces, including the Morgan and Coppin State University police, Maryland Transportation Authority Police, the Baltimore Sheriff's Department and the unarmed public safety officers at Baltimore City Community College.
Such a move would require the school board to seek legislation in this year's General Assembly, school officials said, which they are currently exploring.
If that failed, the City Council could push emergency legislation to allow school police into the city's police and fire pension system. In 2005, Boatwright said, a similar measure was taken to allow the now-disbanded housing police department to join the system.
City school officials said that "it is premature to comment on financial implications" of transitioning the school police to another pension program.
But until a deal is struck, Boatwright said, he believes officers will continue to operate with a fear of getting hurt.
"We're part of a profession where you're bound to get injured, and if you don't, you're not doing your damn job," he said. "We accept the occasional bumps and bruises, but when you're talking about surgeries and permanent pain, that can be the career-changer, the life-changer.
"We all inherited a problem that should have been fixed 20 years ago. But what it comes down to is: We protect your kids; who protects ours?"