Two weeks after a shooting in a Baltimore high school, the city’s school board reversed its position on whether school police should be allowed to carry weapons, voting 8-2 in support of legislation that would amend state law to authorize officers to patrol schools with guns.
The board’s decision comes a month after the 10 members voted unanimously against the idea of arming school police officers. The dramatic shift could provide a needed boost to state Del. Cheryl Glenn’s proposed legislation in Annapolis. Even if the board hadn’t thrown its support behind the bill, Glenn had said she would’ve continued to push for change after the recent shooting at Frederick Douglass High School.
Neil Davis, a 25-year-old family member of a student, came into Douglass on Feb. 8 and shot special education assistant Michael Marks, according to police. The 56-year-old longtime staffer was seriously injured but survived.
The shooting instantly revived the debate over whether school police should be allowed to carry their guns, a contentious issue that’s long divided parents, students and lawmakers. Those on both sides of the issue stridently believe their point of view represents the best way to keep kids safe.
Just because the board voted to support Glenn’s legislation, school board chair Cheryl Casciani said, doesn’t mean armed school police are a “foregone conclusion.”
“It’s not a given what will happen in Annapolis,” she said, “and after it happens we will have some real decisions to make about how we’re going to do this.”
Glenn said that while the city’s General Assembly delegation is divided on the issue, she thinks having the support of the school board will help buoy her bill.
“It would be nice if we lived in a world where we didn’t need guns at all, but that’s not the reality for us in Baltimore City. This decision will give the bill a lot of the support the delegation needs to see,” she said. “This is all about public safety.”
Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in Maryland with a sworn school police force. In surrounding districts, local police or sheriff’s departments patrol schools and are allowed to carry their weapons. Under current law, the city’s roughly 100 school police officers are allowed to carry their guns while patrolling the exterior of school buildings before and after school hours, but they are required to store their weapons in a secure location during the day.
Glenn withdrew her legislation shortly after the school board voted Jan. 22 to oppose arming school police, saying she couldn’t move forward without local support. The youth advocacy group Baltimore Algebra Project briefly shut down that meeting with its calls to keep guns out of schools.
About two weeks later, shots rang out at Douglass. The board quickly agreed to reconsider its stance, and Glenn introduced a new bill.
Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the school police union, immediately seized on the shooting.
“I wonder how that 10-0 vote feels now?” he said, while standing outside Douglass. His officers, he said, need guns to do the job of protecting kids.
At the same time, Douglass history teacher Jesse Schneiderman urged the board not to make a hasty and reactionary policy decision.
“Armed school police would not have stopped this shooting,” he testified.
Those opposed to armed officers contend that putting weapons in school is not the way to make them safer. Allowing school police to carry weapons, they say, will serve to bolster the school-to-prison pipeline and put black children in particular at risk. They question what good armed officers would truly do to make schools more secure, given that some of the most notorious mass shootings took place at schools where officers were outfitted with guns. The ACLU of Maryland, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Parent and Community Advisory Board and Youth As Resources have echoed these kinds of concerns.
“We feel like we have a culture of students with negative relationships with police in their communities,” student organizer Jon Gray said. Giving school police guns “doesn’t help that relationship.”
Gray, a student at Bard High School Early College, said after the vote that “the board had the opportunity to listen to young people” but failed to do so.
“It goes against everything they said. They went and changed their vote after Douglass,” he said. “We keep making decisions out of fear.”
Those on the other side of the debate view the Douglass shooting as further proof that officers must have their guns to keep students and staff safe from an outside threat. School police recovered seven guns during the first six months of this school year, according to the union. The Baltimore school police force is highly trained, they argue, and should be allowed to carry weapons just as their counterparts in suburban districts do. Chief Akil Hamm said his force has reduced the number of school-based arrests dramatically and gone three years without an excessive force complaint.
Principals union president Jimmy Gittings testified to the school board: "If anything happens to a principal, assistant principal, teacher or child because there is no armed school police officer in that building, I'm going to hold you responsible."
Marks, the man shot at Douglass, said he believes school police ought to be armed.
On the day of the shooting, the police officer assigned to Douglass was unarmed as usual. But his area supervisors, who were armed, happened to be on the Douglass campus that day to attend a conference. The officers together took Davis into custody.
District spokeswoman Edie House-Foster said no officer pulled his firearm out during the encounter.