Should Baltimore's school police officers be allowed to carry guns in schools?
The issue brought several passionate groups together at a public hearing at city school headquarters Tuesday night. But in debating how far the district should go to protect students, those in attendance could not have been more divided.
A bill, introduced in the General Assembly by Del. Curt Anderson and Sen. Joan Carter Conway, would allow members of the 141-member city school police force — the only sworn force in the state designated specifically for a school district — to carry service weapons in school buildings while classes are in session.
The measure would allow a change advocated by the city school board, and officers say the matter is one of life and death.
"I want to be on the right side of history," Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the city school police union, told board members.
"We're one heartbeat away from our town becoming the next Newtown," he said, referring to the 2012 incident in which a gunman entered a Connecticut elementary school and fatally shot 20 children and 6 adults.
Current law allows the city school officers, who are assigned primarily to middle and high schools, to be armed only while patrolling the exterior of school buildings and before and after school hours. They cannot be armed while stationed inside schools during the day.
Despite the restrictions, city school police officials acknowledge that officers often carry weapons in school buildings anyway — essentially breaking the law — because they are constantly moving on and off school grounds.
However, the measure is vehemently opposed by some parents, students and youth advocates who say the presence of weapons makes students feel like criminals and heightens fear of violence inside school walls.
"Our kids face violence every day living in Baltimore City. … There has to be a place where they can go and not have to be exposed to firearms and deadly weapons," said Aimee Harmon-Darrow, the parent of a first-grader at Creative City Public Charter School. She said she has already had to explain to her son how a schoolmate's father was killed in gun violence.
"I want this bill shot down," said Darius Craig, a senior at Digital Harbor High School. "They need to be focused on other things, like the professionalism of the police force. I think that will make us feel safer."
Proponents include hundreds of educators throughout the city and students like Debra Hammond, a junior at Merganthaler Vocational-Technical Senior High School, who said they feel safer knowing school police are in their buildings.
"People use these statistics from years ago to talk about how safe we are, but we know what's in our schools," she said. "These officers risk their lives for us on a daily basis."
School board officials asked state legislators to introduce the measure after finding that the city school police force was the only law enforcement agency in the state not allowed to carry weapons in school buildings. In surrounding counties, police officers staff schools.
David Stone, vice chair of the city school board and a supporter of the change, said earlier this month that the board and city schools CEO Gregory Thornton felt "there should be no reason that Baltimore City Public Schools should be an outlier on such an important safety issue."
The bill's fate in Annapolis is uncertain. Some lawmakers have called for the district to research further whether the measure is the most effective way to secure schools.
"Where is the research, the data that suggests that this particular change is needed in order to keep our children safer?" said Del. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat. Washington said she generally opposes guns in schools, and believes the district needs to better justify the change.
"This is a real opportunity, when we're looking at the role of law enforcement, to step back and assess the climate in our schools," said Washington, calling the current proposal "a piecemeal approach."
Darrow and other parents said they have many unanswered questions about the legislation — in part because the district failed to inform residents that it was in the works. Darrow started an online petition, which had more than 300 signatures as of Tuesday, calling for officials to withdraw the bill, provide more information about why it's needed and allow more parent input.
School board officials acknowledge that when they voted in December on legislative initiatives, and later published goals for the assembly session, they did not mention the issue of allowing school officers to carry guns. Stone apologized for that Tuesday.
State lawmakers required the school district to hold Tuesday's hearing. Washington and other lawmakers joined residents in criticizing what she described as a lack of transparency on the issue.
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.
Boatwright said school police undergo the same training and meet the same standards and expectations as Baltimore police and other law enforcement agencies — and in fact have citywide jurisdiction. In addition to protecting Baltimore's 85,000 students, the school police officers are regularly called upon to supplement city police by providing extra patrols and manning at large events.
Boatwright said school officers should be afforded the same protections and purview as city police, and others who would be responsible for responding to a violent incidents such as school shootings. He said in the past three years, school police have responded to 78 school lockdowns, meaning there was a threat of an armed person or another serious incident.
"It's not practical in our profession to keep a weapon in a secure location and retrieve them during an emergency situation," he said. "In an emergency situation, people will die as our officers try to get to a lockbox."
But Rais Akbar, juvenile justice policy director for Advocates for Children and Youth, said there is overwhelming research that guns haven't prevented tragedies.
And further research shows that over-policing in schools has a negative impact on students, including a rise in juvenile arrests, Akbar said, with barely any research showing guns improve school safety.
"Given that imbalance, it suggests we should have less policing," Akbar said. "There are a lot of nightmare scenarios that can happen, but they don't, which means that argument amounts to nothing more than fear-mongering."
Three high school principals testified at the hearing Tuesday in favor of the legislation.
"What message are we sending our kids when we say we don't trust our police to be in your school with their weapon?" said Chris Battaglia, principal of Benjamin Franklin High School at Masonville Cove.
City lawmakers are split on whether increasing violence in schools calls for increased access to weapons by officers.
"If we have an incident like what's been happening around the country, where people are going into the schools, killing teachers and killing everybody else, I think our school police should be able to carry guns," said City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "We've got to be real about this."
But City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said more guns in schools — even those carried by police — could result in more children being shot.
"I think it's a very bad idea," she said.
"Do you really stop an attack because you have somebody with a gun? Or is that gun really adding to shots fired? When you take guns inside the school, you charge the atmosphere," she said.
Baltimore Sun Reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.