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City schools revamp duties, policies for school police force

City school officials are revamping role of school police officers.

Nearly 70 city schools will lose their permanently assigned school police officers — and seven high schools will be staffed with unarmed ones — under a new plan to allow officers to carry guns without breaking the law while taking a larger role in the community.

Baltimore city school officials on Tuesday outlined sweeping changes that will alter how the only designated school police force in the state operates.

The greatest change is a reduction in the number of schools with assigned officers — from 75 to seven. Instead of being in schools, the majority of officers will begin deployments on foot and bike patrols, policing school grounds and surrounding communities.

The department will also take up a new charge, pursuing truancy and criminal behavior that arise in school neighborhoods during the day.

"We're looking at the safety of all of our students, but we're looking at the safety of our communities as well," said Marshall "Toby" Goodwin, chief of the schools police force.

But teacher and administrator union leaders denounced the plan to remove officers from many schools. They say that will leave educators to defuse serious situations that police are more equipped to handle. Lawmakers and advocates also had concerns.

The shift comes just weeks after state lawmakers killed a measure that would have allowed school police officers to carry weapons inside schools during the instructional day.

The debate over that bill sparked discussion about the role police should play in the city schools. In recent weeks, city schools CEO Gregory Thornton, who was not present at Tuesday's announcement, vowed a new direction for the force.

The new plan will allow school police officers to comply with current law — which allows officers to be armed while responding to schools, but prohibits them from carrying weapons while working inside school buildings. During the debate about the failed bill, it was revealed that many officers routinely carry weapons inside schools, essentially breaking the law.

Goodwin acknowledged the new plan brings the department in compliance until another attempt can be made to get the bill passed next legislative session.

He said the plan would yield savings, particularly in overtime costs.

A Baltimore Sun analysis of salary data showed the district paid out nearly $4 million in overtime last year, a large chunk to school police. So far this school year, the district has billed the city government about $245,000 in overtime for the hours school police worked supplementing city police patrols. In addition to patrolling schools, schools police have citywide jurisdiction.

Goodwin maintained that service to schools will not suffer as officers expand their role in connecting with youths, especially the more than 5,000 middle and high school students who are truant each month.

The new plan provides "more visibility and presence in schools than we've had current to date," he said, because it also extends patrols to elementary schools.

Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the school police union, commended the district for incorporating some union recommendations into the new safety plan. "We look forward to the implementation of the plan with the understanding that the primary focus is school safety," he said.

The district will hold community forums on the plan, but officials did not say when. The plan is scheduled to take effect April 13 when schools return from spring break.

The plan was met with mixed reaction from lawmakers and advocates, some of whom questioned whether the plan is aimed at enabling more officers to be armed.

"It seems somewhat tactical. You originally wanted all officers to be armed any time, anywhere, and now you've swung in the opposite direction," said Rais Akbar, juvenile justice policy director for Advocates for Children and Youth.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chairman of the council's public safety committee, pointed out that school police have a proven track record of being involved in the community and not using their weapons against civilians.

Yet he added, "I am concerned because I have heard from teachers, students, parents the question: What if something happens in the schools?"

Under the new plan, officers will be dispersed throughout the city based on geographic zones, allowing them to respond to calls and patrol clusters of schools in close proximity.

The plan leaves some officers unarmed, however — namely those working inside the schools.

The district will keep officers stationed in seven high schools that have large populations: Achievement Academy, Excel Academy, Forest Park High School, Baltimore Community High School, Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School, Digital Harbor High School and Patterson High School.

Theodore Thompson, deputy chief academic officer, said principals will become less reliant on school police for discipline, and will undergo training to assume roles historically filled by school police.

"I think because of the nature of offenses, police officers are a default to deal with disciplinary issues, in support of school administrators," Thompson said. "This will now reverse that role."

But union leaders questioned that shift. The teachers and administrators unions have said members overwhelmingly support arming school police in schools.

Jimmy Gittings, president of the administrators union, said he believed it's a "bad decision" to remove officers from assignments in schools.

"I'm very concerned that they're going to put our principals in a position where they are going to have to act like police officers," said Gittings. "I feel very strongly that our schools need police officers."

Baltimore Teachers Union officials called the removal of officers from schools "disturbing." In a statement, union president Marietta English said the plan asks educators to be "responsible for one more thing other than the educational instruction of our city's students."

Del. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat who opposed the bill to arm police officers, said she agrees with the move to have principals be responsible for disciplining students and supported bike and foot patrols around schools.

Washington said she is concerned, however, that the district did not involve parents and other community members in devising the plan.

"I applaud the move, and we're cautiously optimistic, but still concerned about the process," she said.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, who earlier this month questioned whether the district needed to employ its own police force, said he still has questions — including how the new role of school police is functionally different than Baltimore City police officers assigned to posts that include schools.

"I believe we need a whole lot more information about this new policy before we can possibly assess effectiveness," he said. "I am concerned that this policy literally takes limited education funding outside of our public school buildings without a clear framework for determining whether such a policy is the most effective use of these educational dollars."

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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