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Community still split on city school police

Principals, education advocates, parents and police supporters were divided Monday on whether stationing armed officers in Baltimore schools would be in the best interest of students.

Activists on both sides of the issue spoke at a public forum that will help shape the future of the school district's police department.

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The meeting at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School was the first in a series of forums to be held throughout the month on relaunching the department — the only one of its kind in Maryland — in the coming school year.

The debate echoed those that took place throughout the spring, during a controversial and ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the school system to win a change in state law to allow officers to carry weapons in school buildings during class hours.

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Some said Monday they believed officers are necessary in schools where students need adults they can trust, and in communities where gunshots are heard from school windows.

Evette Harris, a city schools parent, said she believed that the school system's own problems required arming officers. In some schools, she said, the district has "dropped the ball" in maintaining a safe school environment.

"We have allowed many of our misguided youth to take over," she said.

Others believe that officers in schools exacerbate an already tense relationship between police and youth, and the district would be better served diverting money to more productive ends, such as hiring more school counselors.

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Jenny Egan, a public defender for juveniles in Baltimore, pointed to the high numbers of school-based arrests — the city made up 90 percent of all in-school arrests and referrals to the state's juvenile justice system in 2013 — and to the district's code of conduct, in which many infractions require the notification of a school police officer, as evidence of what she believes is criminalizing juvenile behavior.

"Schools should be a safe space for kids to be kids," Egan said.

School officials said the number of school-based arrests plummeted last year by 74 percent to 254. School police made 276 referrals for other interventions.

Officials also said that a redeployment strategy this spring that sent officers into communities surrounding schools — which allowed them to carry their weapons while staying on school duty — showed they could help combat problems such as truancy.

"We strive on a daily basis to make sure that our school communities are safe, internally and externally," city schools Police Chief Marshall "Toby" Goodwin told the crowd.

Baltimore has the only sworn police force in the state directed solely to patrol schools. Other school districts use school resource officers from local police departments to patrol schools. Those officers carry weapons.

Current law allows Baltimore's school police officers to be armed when responding to incidents. But officers stationed at more than 50 schools are not supposed to carry weapons in school buildings, though many have done so for years.

Del. Curt Anderson and Sen. Joan Carter Conway, both Baltimore Democrats, introduced a bill on behalf of the system this year to bring officers in alignment with the rest of the state. They dropped the effort after learning that the school district had failed to get parent and community input on the measure.

In April, city schools CEO Gregory Thornton pulled police officers out of 68 schools and redeployed them in communities surrounding schools for the duration of the school year.

Thornton said he wanted to make a recommendation for a new school police strategy to the city school board in August.

When the officer at Benjamin Franklin High School was pulled out of the school, Principal Chris Battaglia said, "students were looking for him, and it wasn't for discipline."

Battaglia said that the officer has helped the school in ways that discipline and arrest data can't illustrate.

"When the community issues edge their way into the schoolhouse door, I need help," Battaglia said.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, the officer helped diffuse situations, he said, but that such data would not show up on discipline reports.

Kim Humphrey, an advocate with the ACLU of Maryland, said data was important — and, along with training and clear policies, there should be more of it.

"I do know that less contact with police is good for students, and the data shows that," Humphrey said.

twitter.com/EricaLG

Future meetings

Friday, July 17, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Forest Park High School

3701 Eldorado Ave.

Saturday, July 18, 9:00 to 11:00 a.m.

Baltimore City Public Schools Board Room

200 East North Ave.

Monday, July 20, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Violetville Elementary School

1207 Pine Heights Ave.

Wednesday, July 29, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

(for Spanish-speaking families)

Southeast Anchor Library

3601 Eastern Ave.

Monday, July 27, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Southeast Anchor Public Library

3601 Eastern Ave.

Thursday, July 30, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Hamilton Public Library

5910 Harford Rd

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