Halee Simons, a rising 11th grader, says she didn’t feel completely safe at Chesapeake High School in Essex as a sophomore. She saw frequent fights and once called her mom to pick her up after she heard someone brought a gun to school.
“What if an incident bigger than the gun found at school happens again?” Halee said.
This summer, Baltimore-area districts are assessing a school year that educators and administrators say was peppered with behavioral issues and incidents of violence on campus.
City and county school officials say data documenting some of the behaviors are incomplete or unavailable until the fall.
But it was clear that some students struggled in the 2021-2022 school year to understand or communicate their emotions or had trouble adjusting to being back in classrooms for a full school year. In more extreme cases, fights involving students and adults broke out at school or on school buses. The incidents often went viral, creating a sense of urgency among some parents and community leaders to fix problems.
School leaders say they deployed a range of strategies throughout the year to show families they were taking the problem seriously, and plan to expand efforts for the 2022-2023 academic year.
“I think this is going to be a multiyear thing,” said John Davis, chief of schools for Baltimore City Public Schools. “It’s just not going away anytime soon. It’s not going away in a summer.”
The state’s public schools were among the last in the country to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. That meant some students took classes online for more than a year. When Maryland students returned to classrooms in the fall of 2021, educators reported that they brought with them emotional troubles that led in some cases to behavioral issues.
Raising further questions about overall school safety and discipline was a devastating shooting in May at a Texas elementary school by a high school senior who killed 21 students and teachers. Meanwhile, politics surrounding education have become increasingly polarized, from the school board level on up, in Maryland and across the nation.
In Baltimore City, the school system keeps data on the number of suspensions stemming from weapons violations and from physical altercations, threats or harassment. The school system did not see a significant spike in either category during the first semester, but officials say the data set for the full academic year isn’t complete.
Both students and adults have been implicated in incidents in schools since the pandemic, officials said, which also come at a time of rising gun violence in the city.
City schools CEO Sonja Santelises acknowledged the trend during a public meeting in April, shortly after a student at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School stabbed two peers. Police found a loaded handgun on campus the same day, though the incidents are not believed to be related, according to police.
The “pattern of increasing behavioral challenges” this year is not unique to Baltimore high schools or even to the city as a whole, Santelises said.
“It’s a societal issue that is coming into our schools,” she said. “Nevertheless, it is our responsibility as a district and a school community to keep our schools, our students and our staff safe.”
City school administrators are using state funding to improve security infrastructure such as alarm systems, closed-circuit TV cameras and metal detectors at high schools. The cost per school can range from $250,000 to more than $1 million, based on each building’s needs, Santelises said.
Davis, the system’s chief of schools, said leaders knew when schools reopened last fall that they would need to focus on culture and climate. So, they scheduled professional development sessions and distributed grade-appropriate resources to staff. They pushed school staff to tell families where they could find support. And they turned to outside mediation services, which aimed to move conflicts off campuses.
Officials also wanted to hire more mental health clinicians but “haven’t been able to find them,” Davis said.
He acknowledged “it’s been a very tough year.”
”This is the push and pull,” Davis said. “There are people who want to see kids arrested for a lot of different things. We’re not going to do that, because too many kids end up in the juvenile system.”
Baltimore County school suspension rates rose each grading period for students in third through 12th grade, staff told school board members at a meeting Tuesday. From the first marking period to the third, the percentage of students suspended at least once grew from 1.98% to 2.83%. Seventh graders saw the highest suspension rate, at 6.14%.
“The data has been difficult to hang a lot of conclusions on,” said Charles Herndon, a spokesperson for the county schools.
He said it’s difficult to compare this year’s suspensions with prior years since the pandemic closed school buildings for months beginning in March 2020.
Still, he said, it’s “generally assumed” that schools have seen more violence this year, but that such incidents became less frequent as the school year concluded.
“We’ve tried to respond as best as we could ... to what we’re hearing, what we’re seeing,” he said.
Suburban school systems such as Baltimore County saw an outcry over violence in schools. Some parents and community members spoke out during school board meetings and held a rally in May outside one board meeting.
Superintendent Darryl L. Williams announced in April that the system would send safety assistants to middle and high schools to supplement school resource officers. The program was piloted during the spring in 20 schools, with each school employing three to five safety assistants trained in de-escalation strategies. It will expand next year to more than 150 assistants across all high schools, said April Lewis, executive director of the county schools’ division of school climate and safety.
Research suggests some strategies to mitigate violence might not be effective and can have implications for students of color, who are disproportionately disciplined compared with white students.
A 2018 report and action plan from the Maryland Commission on the School-to-Prison Pipeline and Restorative Practices found that schools too often rely on suspensions and “harsh punishments.” It concluded suspensions do not make schools safer and hiring school resource officers is expensive and lacks “any robust evidence of effectiveness.”
Following the massacre in Texas, the Johns Hopkins University held a panel on gun violence, and panelist Odis Johnson, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, said schools with dedicated police on campus tend to refer incidents to law enforcement at higher rates than those that do not employ police. Additionally, he said schools that rely on law enforcement have lower test scores and college attendance.
“Many of our young people feel like suspects instead of students,” Johnson said.
It is possible for school resource officers to have a positive impact on schools beyond their policing duties, according to Lisa Williams, who previously oversaw equity and cultural proficiency for Baltimore County schools. Williams testified in 2017 for the state commission that produced the action plan to address the school-to-prison pipeline.
“School districts who value the SRO as a part of the school community, as a part of that ecosystem, do things differently,” she said. “Have them involved in mentoring, coaching, so they become a part of the school team. And when SROs are positioned in that way, not as extensions of police officers, you see different kinds of outcomes.”
Baltimore County SROs work in schools but are employees of the Baltimore County Police Department. They undergo equity training with Doug Handy, who holds Williams’ old job overseeing equity for the system.
Lewis said officers do more than just prevent and stop school violence, such as meeting with students to teach them about the law and build relationships. For the 2019-2020 school year, officers taught more than 2,500 lessons and hosted upward of 170,000 formal and informal mentoring events, though data collection goes only through that February.
Lewis said she believes behavioral issues escalated in the 2021-2022 year, but she doesn’t know yet to what degree nor how it will compare with the last full school year before the pandemic. Data should be ready in the fall, she said.
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She said a teacher shortage contributes to a feeling of increased violence in schools.
“Properly staffed schools increase academic achievement, reduce discipline concerns and increase educator retention,” said Cindy Sexton, president of the union representing Baltimore County teachers, at the May rally. “Students will not change if they do not feel safe. We can’t fix any of it if we don’t have the educators in the schools.”
Also, Sexton said she believes social media makes fights more visible to people outside school buildings and might lead viewers to believe violence in schools has worsened.
Throughout the late spring rally, students, parents, teachers, support staff, and members of the Randallstown NAACP and the League of Women Voters voiced concerns about school violence, as well as advocating for pay raises for overworked teachers.
Bella Pollara, an eighth grader at Perry Hall Middle School, was at the rally mainly to support increasing teachers’ salaries. She said there have been frequent fights at her school but that she feels safe. If she sees an altercation in a hallway, she said, she walks the other way. Some fights she ends up seeing later on social media.
There wasn’t a consensus among the crowd on specific demands. Some people asked for violent students to be removed from classrooms. Others, such as Ericka McDonald, co-president for the League of Women Voters and a county school parent, called for an informed response and overall action.
“I’d like to see a clear and definitive plan with measurable objectives,” McDonald said. “I’d like to see transparent data for each school.”