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Principals, teachers urge support for Baltimore school police after slapping video causes scrutiny

Principals, teachers urge support for Baltimore school police after slapping video causes scrutiny
Baltimore school police officer Kelley Jackson, left, stands beside Muriel Cole-Webber, principal of Edmondson-Westside High School outside a meeting Tuesday of the city school board. School administrators attended Tuesday's meeting as a show of support for school police. (Tim Prudente)

Two days ago, in the parking lot of her Northeast Baltimore school, Principal Katrice Wiley discovered a gun.

"What could have happened could have been a disaster," she said. "Do not take school police out of our schools."

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The principal of Friendship Academy of Engineering & Technology urged city school officials to preserve, even expand, the force that has come under recent scrutiny.

"If our kids are not safe, they cannot learn," she told the city school board Tuesday evening.

Schools CEO Gregory Thornton has pledged to review the force after cellphone video surfaced showing an officer slapping around a teenager last week outside the REACH Partnership school in Clifton Park.

Monday night, Thornton met privately with teachers and parents at REACH.

Then teachers, administrators and officers crowded into a regular school board meeting on Tuesday.

Again, Thornton pledged to "look deeply" into the selection and training of officers. "Every aspect of school police," he told the crowd. "Keeping our children safe is the most important role that we all play."

More than a dozen school administrators attended the meeting in a show of support for the force.

"We cannot judge all based on the aspects of one," said Nikkia Rowe, principal of Renaissance Academy High School. Two Renaissance students and a recent dropout have been killed since December.

Rowe called for more officers to steer students from violence. "There are not enough in the area to build relationships with children."

The cellphone video has raised tensions between school police and the community. The video was filmed last Tuesday outside REACH. It's unclear what happened before the officer slapped the teenage boy three times and kicked him once.

The officer has been identified as Anthony C. Spence, 44, of Baltimore. Spence's attorney said the officer believed the 16-year-old was trespassing and an altercation happened when Spence asked the boy to leave.

Spence has been placed on administrative leave with another officer who was filmed watching the incident. School officials haven't named the officers, but Spence's lawyer identified him.

School Police Chief Marshall Goodwin also has been placed on administrative leave.

Meanwhile, city police launched a criminal investigation in collaboration with the Baltimore state's attorney's office.

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"What we cannot do is throw the baby out with the bathwater," City Councilman Brandon Scott told the school board. "There is no way possible that we can function as a school system without school police."

The force has significantly reduced its presence in schools within the past year. Thornton has assigned police full time to only seven city high schools. The rest were redeployed and sent into communities surrounding schools — where they are allowed to carry weapons — to help address problems such as truancy. They are on foot and bike patrols.

The force has about 120 officers.

Baltimore has the only sworn police force in the state run by a school system. Other school districts use school resource officers from local police departments to patrol schools. Those officers carry weapons. Baltimore's school police are not permitted to carry guns in a school.

The recent video, however, has given renewed voice to those who want officers yanked from schools.

"The beating of a student, that should be a wake-up call," said Afiya Ervin, an 11th-grader at Baltimore City College high school. "We are students. We are not enemies or punching bags."

She spoke in opposition of the force, so did Assistant Public Defender Jenny Egan. She has represented students arrested for merely throwing food and stealing trading cards, she said.

"All too often, school police are used to enforce, and sometimes brutally enforce, low-level crimes," Egan said.

After the video, school officials said they are exploring whether to outfit officers with body cameras.

Also, Thornton has planned a series of private meetings at schools to rebuild trust with neighborhoods.

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