Forum on whether to arm Baltimore City school-based police shows sharp divide

Baltimore remains deeply divided about the best way to keep city students safe in their schools.

Some argue that school police officers must be allowed to carry guns in the building in case an armed intruder bursts in with the intent to harm children and their teachers. Others say arming these officers will strengthen the school-to-prison pipeline and create more dangers for the predominantly African-American student population.

Passionate advocates for both sides of the issue packed the school system headquarters Thursday as the school board once again raised the question: Should Baltimore allow school-based officers to carry guns while patrolling the hallways?

And while the packed room was in two clear camps, 66-year-old Ralph Moore appeared to earn applause from everyone.

“We’re all concerned about the safety of children and teachers in the schools. On that we agree easily,” he said. “Can we also stipulate that we’re all afraid? It’s getting crazy out here, and we feel that.”

This issue last roiled the city in 2015 when the school board asked the Baltimore legislative delegation to change the current law, which prohibits school police from carrying guns during operating hours. The board members did so without seeking any public input.

Board chair Cheryl Casciani pledged to do things differently this time.

The board doesn’t have the power to mandate whether officers carry guns or not, but it can ask the legislature to make changes. Until that happens, the roughly 90 city schools police officers will be permitted to carry their service weapons while patrolling the exterior of a school before and after school hours. But they are required to store their weapons in a secure location during the school day.

Baltimore Democrat Del. Cheryl Glenn said she supports allowing school police to carry their guns in the buildings.

"Having sworn police officers have weapons with them is a matter of being proactive and not reactive," she said. "I'm looking forward to addressing this issue in the upcoming session."

A group of six school principals testified together, asking the board to lobby Annapolis and take back the power to make this decision themselves. They said this is an issue that local leaders must take the lead on.

“In the end, you can’t do anything,” Chris Battaglia, principal of Benjamin Franklin High School at Masonville Cove, told the board.

Battaglia has previously expressed support for arming officers, saying he’s concerned that the message this debate sends to young people is that “even the adults don't trust police with their weapons.”

Student leaders with Youth As Resources said they’re concerned about kids’ perceptions that school police already use excessive force. The student-led community organizing group is against allowing school police to carry guns.

“Relationships between police and youth are distrustful enough without police in our school having guns,” said 16-year-old Jerell Smith, a student at Forest Park. “It is just going to make youth trust police less and not feel safe.”

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.

Some parents on Thursday night questioned why — in a time when suburban counties are boosting school security in the wake of highly publicized shootings — Baltimore’s police are expected to patrol the halls with empty holsters.

That leaves them compromised should an officer need to respond to an active shooter, parents and teachers said.

A number of parents, some with their young children on their laps or in the audience, said they believe officers need to carry guns so they can effectively protect the students. They told the board that school police officers are trusted members of their communities.

“Our children are too valuable for us to wait until something happens here,” said Tony Jones, the 42-year-old father of three city students.

Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the school police union, unloaded a bag full of nearly 20 toy guns, demonstrating how many firearms officers have recovered from schools in the past three years. He’s a fierce advocate for arming these officers, telling the board he doesn’t want to have to bury a member of his ranks because he couldn’t defend himself.

Those opposing guns in schools cited the relative infrequency of school shootings and questioned whether data show that an armed officer is a deterrent.

“More guns will not lead to safer schools,” said Frank Patinella of the ACLU of Maryland.

One mother said that though others will invoke Parkland and Newtown — the sites of deadly school shootings in recent years — she is instead thinking of the names Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, two black youths killed by police officers.

In other counties, said Aimee Harmon-Darrow, the backdrop of children’s lives isn’t a city ravaged by hundreds of homicides, under a consent decree catalyzed by a federal investigation that uncovered widespread discriminatory policing.

Quiet for most of the forum, CEO Sonja Santelises said it’s important to acknowledge the progress school police have made under chief Akil Hamm.

Hamm, who took over the force after an incident at the REACH Partnership School where an officer struck a student in 2016, said 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.”

“While not perfect,” Santelises said, “our school police officers have done yeoman’s work in reflecting on their practice and building relationships with kids.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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