Survey of Baltimore students indicates better relations with school police, excessive force still a problem

Baltimore city students generally have a positive relationship with school police, according to a survey, but many students still think the officers use excessive force when dealing with conflicts.

Youth As Resources, a Baltimore youth-ledorganization that helps young people tackle community problems through organizing and leadership, developed the survey and administered it last March to 36 city schools where police officers were stationed. It marked the first time students were surveyed about their interactions with school officers. Of the more than 5,400 fifth through twelfth grade students that participated in the survey, 85 percent said school police are respectful to students. More than 70 percent said school police contribute positively to school climate and make them feel safe. However, nearly half of the students surveyed — 48 percent — said the police used “excessive force” when dealing with conflicts.

City schools CEO Sonja Santelises said during Tuesday’s school board meeting that “while some of those other figures are still kind of scary, the foundation that’s been laid is the right one.”

Toni Grace, vice chair of the Youth As Resources board, said students want to be able to hold police accountable for what they do in schools. This survey was one way to do so, she said.

“We want to see officers do better,” said Grace, 18, a recent Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School graduate.

A 2016 incident at REACH Partnership School in Clifton Park prompted the youth group to look into student-police relationships. A video surfaced that showed a school police officer slapping and kicking a student while a second officer looked on. The officer, Anthony Spence, was charged with second-degree assault, and pleaded guilty in a deal that allowed him to clear his record but required he step down from his job.

Akil Hamm, chief of the school police force, said the percentage of students who cited excessive force by his officers as a problem, indicates there’s still work to be done. He believes some of the national debate over police brutality is seeping into school buildings and influencing how students perceive school officers and hurting the image of school officers. He wants his officers to change that perception.

The department has not received a complaint about excessive force for the last year and half, Hamm said. And reportable use of force incidents, such as when an officers physically handles a student, deploys pepper spray or uses a baton, are down 54 percent, he said.

Hamm said all of his officers — there are now 103 full-time personnel in 37 schools — underwent mandatory training over the summer that delved into ways to reduce student arrests, attempt conflict resolution, and be cognizant of implicit bias and other best practices.

The survey also found that more than half of city students don’t feel school police have an understanding of their life in and outside of school. Hamm said the department tries to improve understanding between students and officers by placing officers in schools where they also work as coaches, or are alumni.

“What I try to do is encourage officers to get to know the community and build a rapport with students and staff so we can get in front of any potential issues that may occur whether in the school or in the neighborhood,” he said.

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