DARRON Wheeler figured he was a cop after spending six months in the police academy and going through 14 weeks of field training. So did Terry Boyce and John Rudisill.
But the folks in Baltimore's public schools, the trio contends, didn't think so. Not the teachers. Or the principals. The honchos down at school headquarters on North Avenue? Forget about it.
Security guards. That, Wheeler, Boyce and Rudisill say, is how folks in the school system thought of them. Never mind that between the three, more than 300 arrests have been made for crimes ranging from assault to robbery to gun possession to drug offenses.
"I never answered when they called me a security guard," Rudisill said of his five years as a Baltimore school police officer. "I'd tell them, 'If you want a security guard, you'd better call Wells Fargo.'"
Rudisill works for the police department at Morgan State University these days. Wheeler spent 10 years as a city schools cop. He had the rank of sergeant when he left in October. Boyce spent four years on the city schools force and also left in October. Both started working as Morgan cops before Rudisill did.
"They didn't respect us as police officers," Boyce said. "The teachers, the staff thought of us as security guards. Even down at North Avenue, they didn't give us no respect."
Wheeler also placed the blame for the negative attitude toward school police at the feet of administrators on North Avenue. And for the uniforms that were in constant need of tailoring and for the cars with exhaust leaks, broken handles and gas fumes emanating from them.
"It got to the point where I drove my own car to police calls," Boyce said.
Since they're regarded as something other than real police officers, school cops, the trio said, aren't allowed to carry guns.
"A lot of times, students had more weapons than we had," Wheeler said.
But there's another reason police officers are leaving the city school force in droves: dollars.
"The most important thing was the money," Wheeler said. "We were not being paid enough for the job we did." At Morgan, Wheeler, Boyce and Rudisill are making more dough, have a chance for advancement and have a better retirement package.
Oscar Jobe, the chief of staff for city schools CEO Carmen Russo, denied the claims that school administrators have little regard for school police officers.
"I certainly think there's a very high level of respect," Jobe said of Russo's attitude toward school police. "She's familiar with their scope, what they do and the importance of their job." Jobe said Russo has addressed the old-car problem by ordering five new ones to add to the current pool of 18. If the school system gets a law enforcement grant, more vehicles will be added, bringing the total to as many as 30.
Jobe said he would investigate the problem of old uniforms. On the matter of money, he was in accord with Wheeler, Boyce and Rudisill.
"The reason school police are leaving isn't related to Mrs. Russo at all," Jobe said. "For the last 20 years we didn't keep pace with the salary of other officers. Most said in exit interviews they were leaving for a better job with better pay, better promotion opportunities and a better retirement package."
Jobe said the city school police force is down to 65 officers, with 37 or 38 vacancies. Administrators are trying to address the salary problem. School police have been given a 4 percent pay raise. A 3 percent raise will soon follow.
It's a pity those changes didn't go into effect before Wheeler, Boyce and Rudisill left for Morgan. The disdain from staffers aside, they loved the work.
"It was an enjoyable job because of who we were working with -- the kids," Wheeler said. "Working with those kids, we became everything -- mentors, parents, coaches."
Wheeler's last post in city schools was at Chinquapin Middle School, where he says he helped defuse a neighborhood gang situation by getting the kids involved in basketball. Wheeler also served as an assistant coach in the sport at Dunbar High School. Boyce established a rapport with students at Edmondson High School, where he was also an assistant lacrosse coach.
"You had to learn how to talk to [the students] and get on their side," Boyce said. "That's the thing I miss most of all. I miss those kids."
Edwin Johnson, the Dunbar High School alumnus interviewed for the Jan. 26 column about linebacker Tommy Polley of the Los Angeles Rams Playing In St. Louis, called to make it clear he never said, as he was quoted, that Polley played on a national championship Little League football team he coached.
Johnson said Polley was on the Northwood Football League team that won a national championship and that he didn't coach that team.
Tracey Todd sent an e-mail that said that Polley's coaches on that team were Stanley Mitchell and Kevin "Herb" Estep. My thanks to both Johnson and Todd for the correction.