When Baltimore schools reopen Aug. 31, school police officers will patrol as they did at the end of last school year — from posts in the community, rather than inside school buildings, where they are not allowed to carry guns.
That approach, discussed Friday at a meeting of the city school board's operations committee, extends a deployment strategy to which officials turned after they failed to win legislation that would have allowed officers to carry guns in schools.
The state allows school police officers to be armed only outside school buildings, or if they're responding to an incident inside a building — but not if they are permanently assigned to a school building.
A bill that would have allowed school police officers to be armed inside schools failed during the General Assembly session that ended in April.
As a result, the school district reduced the number of officers assigned to schools from 75 to seven, and required officers to do foot and mobile patrols on school grounds and in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Officials say this redeployment, part of a "community policing" strategy, has had promising results. Chief Marshall "Toby" Goodwin, head of the school police force, said the strategy allows officers to visit "numerous schools" each day.
Still, Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton told school board members the system will evaluate options for school policing over the next several months. He said the city district is unusual among school systems in the state, which have city or county police officers dubbed "school resource officers" dedicated to individual schools.
Baltimore has the only police force that is specifically focused on schools.
Some critics say the presence of police officers in the schools creates a hostile environment, and that the $8 million spent on them could be put to better use. Some educators and parents say the officers are an integral part of a school community and are necessary to defuse conflicts.
Thornton said the system needs to address school safety from multiple fronts — not just whether school police officers should carry guns or not.
"School safety to me is bigger than guns," he said.
Thornton said he is considering creating a citizens advisory committee on safety issues, and plans to review what works in other school systems.
"I want to do what best-in-class looks like," he said.
Board member Cheryl Casciani agreed more research is required. Recent public meetings on school police have displayed a 50-50 split in opinion on whether officers should carry guns inside school buildings, she said.
If changes to the force will require state legislation, Thornton said, the deadline to make such a decision would be in November or December, in advance of the Maryland General Assembly session that convenes in January.
This story has been updated.