Harford schools modify Baltimore travel ban for sports teams

Harford school officials decided Monday to allow travel to Baltimore for athletic events

On their first day back after a week off for snow days, the Fallston and Harford Tech indoor track teams were told at the last minute Monday that Harford County Public Schools would not allow them to travel to Baltimore that day for a regional meet and a chance to qualify for the state meet.

The decision brought light to the latest Harford County Public Schools stance on travel into the city since the civil unrest resulting from the death of Freddie Gray last April.

In a series of decisions aimed at keeping its students safe from civil unrest in the city, Harford County Public Schools again last month banned trips to Baltimore before modifying the prohibition this week.

As of Monday, the ban was changed to allow sports teams to compete, while the ban on field trips remained, but that word didn't reach the Fallston and Harford Tech track teams until it was too late. The two teams will be made whole by being allowed to try to qualify for the state meet by competing in a different regional meet next week.

At various times, Harford County Public Schools have not permitted travel into Baltimore in an effort to be cautious and keep its students safe.

"All travel from Harford County Public Schools to Baltimore City was canceled effective January 11, 2016," Jillian Lader, spokeswoman for Harford County Public Schools, wrote in an email Wednesday.

Officials decided Monday, however, to allow travel to Baltimore for athletic events "as they typically have additional supervision, are in more controlled environments, and some events do have playoff implications," Lader wrote.

Field trips to the city are still canceled, Lader wrote.

The most recent ban came as Baltimore prepared for potentially more unrest as trials for the six police officers charged in Gray's death were scheduled to start. The trials have been delayed while Officer William Porter appeals a court ruling that he must testify in trials against his codefendants.

Scott McGill Jr., a senior pole vaulter for Fallston, said he learned his team would not be going about an hour before he was scheduled to board a school bus to Baltimore.

Scott, 17, said he and his teammates were "confused" about why they could not participate.

"We just thought it was silly that we weren't allowed to go to Baltimore City," he said Wednesday.

Scott's father, Scott McGill Sr., of Fallston, stressed he is less concerned about his son's team missing a meet than he is about a school system policy he called "wrong-headed."

"I'd like to get some common sense inserted into this policy, and I'd like for the Board of Education to explain to the student body what their policy is and why," he said Wednesday. "They're really doing a disservice to their students when they instill this fear and mistrust of Baltimore City residents."

The Harford County Public Schools decision to allow travel for sporting events was made after a statewide conference call on school security matters, in which Bob Benedetto, the school system's coordinator of Safety and Security, participates, according to Lader, who said athletic directors were notified Tuesday.

The Fallston coach, Bill Blewett, told his team via email that the school's athletic director informed him Monday afternoon the students could not go to the tournament. Blewett is also a longtime running and track columnist for The Aegis.

The teams are scheduled to participate in a 1A Central meet next Tuesday at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore, which was also the site of the 2A Central meet held Monday.

On Wednesday night, according to Blewett, Bel Air High pole vaulter Alina Nagornuk won in the 4A East meet at the Fifth Regiment Armory.

Scott's father wrote emails to HCPS Superintendent Barbara Canavan and her top aides about his concerns.

In response, Joseph Schmitz, executive director for middle and high school performance, said school officials had been "evaluating a situation in which a number of high profile judicial proceedings were to be taking place at the Baltimore City Circuit Court."

Canavan and her aides then "met and suspended trips into Baltimore City, many of which were to destinations in close proximity to the Court House and City Hall," according to Schmitz.

McGill, who grew up in Fallston, told The Aegis he and his family visit Baltimore frequently to attend church, productions at Center Stage and community activities.

He also planned to attend a conference at the Baltimore Convention Center downtown Thursday.

"It's exactly what we don't need to do in Harford County," he said of the policy against student travel to Baltimore. "We need to be building bridges, not creating roadblocks with our neighbors in the city."

Scott Jr. said he has visited Baltimore a few times since the unrest last year.

"I felt safe, as I usually do," he said. "I felt normal."

Aegis Sports Editor Randy McRoberts contributed to this report.

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