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Baltimore school police survey: 70 percent of students say officers make them feel safe

The majority of Baltimore City students say school police make them feel safe, though roughly half believe police use force when dealing with conflicts, according to survey results released by the Baltimore City Public Schools on Tuesday.

It’s the second year the district has administered the survey, which is designed to measure the way students feel about the roughly 100 police officers who walk the halls of schools across the city. The effort was spearheaded by student advocates from Youth As Resources and the Baltimore Algebra Project.

The report comes a few weeks after the school system voted to implement a sweeping new set of police policies aimed at protecting schools without criminalizing students.

This year’s results largely mirror those from the inaugural survey in 2017. About 80 percent of students said this year that they “feel that school police do not make them feel like criminals,” 84 percent agreed that school police respect them and 70 percent said their school police officer made them feel safe.

But the survey also highlighted problems in student-police interactions: More than 60 percent of students said they didn’t have a relationship with their school police officer, and 56 percent felt police didn’t understand their lives inside or outside school.

About half said police use force when dealing with conflicts. And more than 20 percent said police don’t know how to deal with students who have disabilities.

Roughly 5,150 students participated in the survey, which targeted fifth- through 12th-graders at the 37 schools with permanent officer placements.

Some of the student advocates questioned the results of the report, and asked for the district to release school-specific data that would help them identify problem officers. They said the positive sentiments reflected in the survey don’t necessarily jive with what the students are hearing from their peers. Some described seeing or hearing about officers using excessive force in schools.

“Overall, students do not trust school police,” said Youth As Resources vice chair Tori Grace, a 16-year-old Western High School student. “Some even want school police to have body cameras.”

Student advocates began pushing for an annual school police report card after a 2016 incident at the REACH Partnership School. A video went viral showing a school police officer slapping and kicking a student while a second officer watched.

Akil Hamm took over as acting police chief after the incident and has overseen a drop in school-based arrests. For the past two years, he said, no student has filed a complaint alleging improper police conduct.

Hamm said school police have changed the way they operate since the 2016 incident, and and that the recently passed police policies will further set them on the right track. New general orders also define the ways school police officers are supposed to interact with students who have disabilities, identify as LGBTQ or speak limited English.

The policies emphasize that disciplining students is the responsibility of school administrators, while “responding to serious crime” is the role of a school police officer.

After reviewing the survey results, school system officials agreed there was still work to be done.

They discussed having future surveys be more grade-specific, arguing that fifth-graders and high school seniors should be asked different questions given their different comprehension levels.

Joshua Lynn, the newly named student commissioner, asked Hamm what his officers were doing to improve student-police relationships since the survey results remained mostly steady since last year.

Hamm said changes have been implemented since the initial survey results were released. The district analyzed individual school’s results and made tweaks and “had conversations” with the officers and administrators at schools that yielded poor results on the survey.

School board chair Cheryl Casciani said she wants to continue to bring together the student groups, police and district officials to go over their concerns.

“We want everybody to stay at the table,” she said.

City schools CEO Sonja Santelises agreed.

“I don't think there’s anything you've surfaced that we’re not willing to have conversations about,” she told the student advocates.

Students could also leave comments on the survey. Among the open-ended questions asked was: “School police would not be needed if … ”

“If people just understood how to use words to solve their confrontation instead of violence,” one student wrote.

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

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