Do police in public schools symbolize safety or fear?


IN AN OLD "Saturday Night Live" routine, Garrett Morris plays a sickly kid for whom the great Babe Ruth has promised to hit a home run. As Morris lies in his hospital bed, listening to a radio broadcast of the day's ballgame, an announcer says, "The Babe has promised to hit a homer today for little Johnny in the hospital, who's dying I"

To which Morris bolts upright in bed and declares, "I'm dying?!"

Some of us had that same sensation the other day when C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger took the oath of office for his second term as Baltimore County executive and announced his intention to ++ put police officers in each of the county's 24 high schools, most of which were previously considered not only academically healthy but secure: If the schools need police, does it mean they're starting to die?

Ruppersberger said such police could stop fights. They have so many fights in Baltimore County high schools? He said they could prevent crimes. They have so much crime in county high schools? He said he saw such officers as "walking symbols of strength, compassion, discipline and safety."

We used to have such people in our schools. They were known as teachers. They were known as principals. If police had to be summoned to schools, it was strictly a sign of trouble. If you heard about police in schools, you immediately thought, "This school's starting to die."

Thus, for those thousands of Baltimore County parents who send their sons and daughters to high school every day and casually assume these kids are gathering in a safe environment, the reaction to full-time police presence in the schools might have provoked the next response: "How do I get my kid to a high school that's safe - even if I have to pay private school money for it"?

And that's certainly not the reaction Ruppersberger wants.

Long ago, in a gentler time and place, when Ruppersberger went to Baltimore City College, the principal was a fellow named Henry T. Yost. He wore eyeglasses thick as the Hubble telescope. He had a high, rheumy voice and might have been the last man in America wearing starched, high-collar shirts. He was no one's idea of intimidating. But he was all the authority City College needed back then.

Why bring up Yost 35 years after the fact? Because, for all the warm memories of Ruppersberger's City College as a shining academic castle on a hill, such a picture is not strictly accurate. City was a cross section of hormonally raging adolescents from all over town, given to the various stupidities and thoughtless outbursts and cultural edginess common to many teen-agers - and yet, for all its troubles, real and potential, no one imagined the need for a police presence.

When such a time arrived, however, it fueled not only fear in the city schools but a mass exodus out of those schools, and out of city neighborhoods, to such suburban schools as Ruppersberger and a task force on violence now want to stock with police.

Question for the day: Where is the line drawn between bringing security to schools and panicking parents who didn't imagine there was a security problem to begin with?

Let's be clear about differences in arithmetic. A year ago, city school officials compiled a list of juvenile arrests - by school. Most of the arrests (though not all) happened off school grounds, but the numbers, and the school connections, give some notion of troubled kids inside the schools. There were 784 arrests of students - from Patterson High. Lake Clifton students, 643 arrests. Southwestern, 519. Northern, 516. Southern, 488. Walbrook, 383. Northwestern, 380.

And so on. You have so many troubled kids, you can argue for a police presence. At Ruppersberger's old school, City College, 34 were arrested. That's a fairly low figure - but, in Ruppersberger's time, fairly unimaginable. Again, many of the arrests happened off school grounds - but, across the city, the arrests of students serve as a barometer of troubled kids inside the schools.

In Baltimore County high schools, we are dealing with no such numbers. A year ago, says Charles Herndon, county school spokesman, 1,340 juveniles were arrested in the county. Not all of the arrests were connected with public school kids.

As for individual schools, he says, there were calls for police help - 230 such calls at Lansdowne High, 225 at Dundalk, 201 at Woodlawn, 198 each for Parkville and Randallstown high schools - but such calls were for anything from fights to requests for traffic assistance.

"The idea of bringing in full-time police," Herndon said yesterday, "is to prevent the kind of violence we see in other school districts. And it's not just the violence and misbehavior of some city schools. We see the tragedies in Springfield, in Kentucky, in Oregon, and know that it could happen anywhere.

"Baltimore County is still relatively safe, considering that we're large and urbanizing. But we want to head off problems before they become problems."

Later yesterday, Ruppersberger said, "We don't want the police there as guards to catch people; we want the kids to see that police are there to help you, not just lock you up. We want the police to deal with the kids in a nonconfrontational way, and thus build respect for law enforcement." It sounds reasonable. But, inevitably, bringing in police might make some parents wonder: Is my kid's school really as safe as I used to assume it was?

Pub Date: 12/10/98

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