Arming Baltimore school police might do more harm than good

There are a few important distinctions between the debate the city’s school board is starting over arming Baltimore School Police officers and the one the district went through three years ago.

For starters, the board is asking for public input before taking a position on the issue; then, it asked legislators to introduce a bill authorizing it before the public had any inkling that it was even being considered. Then, the debate occurred amid some high-profile incidents of school police officers caught on video using excessive force on students; now, the school police chief says the Civilian Review Board hasn't gotten an excessive force complaint about an officer/student interaction for two years.Then, the role of school police — whether they should be there to protect students from intruders or to maintain discipline within the school — was ill defined; now, the department is operating under new policies designed to provide more clarity. School-based arrests are down substantially under Chief Akil Hamm, who took over after the last debate.

Still, we’re skeptical. The instances in which having officers carry guns inside school buildings is necessary are exceedingly rare, whereas the possible negative consequences — physical and psychological — can’t be ignored.

Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, the president of the schools police union, points to school shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Great Mills, Md., as justifications for arming officers. But the Parkland case is no great argument for armed law enforcement in schools — the sheriff’s deputy there at the time of the shooting famously failed to intervene. An armed school resource officer, Blaine Gaskill, acted courageously at Great Mills, confronting the shooter and ultimately firing once at him, hitting him in the hand as he fatally shot himself. But that was a targeted attack on one student, Jaelynn Willey, and it is not clear in retrospect whether any additional lives were saved by the officer’s action.

Mr. Boatwright also noted the recent incident at Maree G. Farring Elementary/Middle School when two students brought guns to school, one of which was fired in a bathroom. We have no idea how an armed officer would have ameliorated that situation, in which two students were engaged in a dangerous and stupid game but not threatening anyone, but we can easily imagine how it could have led to a tragic end.

School police officers, even ones who, like Baltimore’s, have training equivalent to that of municipal police, make mistakes. This spring, the Associated Press documented 30 cases since 2014 of gun mishaps in schools by law enforcement officers or teachers. Sometimes students took guns from officers’ holsters, sometimes officers left them in unsecured locations where students found them, sometimes the officers themselves accidentally fired their weapons. The same can happen to municipal police officers patrolling the streets, of course, but the potential for tragedy is heightened in a school because kids, as evidenced by the Maree G. Farring case, are prone to immature decisions.

It is certainly fair to point out that the current arrangement in which school police officers are allowed to carry their weapons on school grounds before and after the school day but must then secure them while inside the school is awkward, and previous anecdotal accounts have suggested the rule isn’t always followed, whether intentionally or by accident. We also appreciate the point that school resource officers in the suburbs (who are regular law enforcement officers, not part of a school police department) are typically armed.

But we would also note the particular challenges many Baltimore schools face. Baltimore is among the most violent cities in America, and students at too many of its schools are exposed to guns and shootings in ways many of us can’t even imagine. Moreover, Baltimore is in the midst of wrestling with a legacy of unconstitutional policing and excessive use of force. For those reasons, the sight of an officer with a gun may be more traumatic than comforting to many city students.

We are certainly pleased to see the efforts at reform of the School Police during the last three years and the openness with which Mr. Hamm has greeted feedback from advocates. The rise of student activism around this issue is also heartening. The work by Youth as Resources to survey students on their perceptions of school police and to push for change has been indispensable. We have no doubt that challenges remain (for example, most students said school police officers make them feel safer but that excessive force remains a concern), but the Baltimore School Police is clearly in a better place than it was three years ago. Perhaps the community’s reaction to arming school officers this time will be different. But we are unconvinced that the benefits come close to outweighing the risks.

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