Last week, the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners held a forum on school police carrying weapons. This issue first erupted in 2015 when the school board requested a bill be introduced changing the current law, from requiring school police to secure their firearms in a lock box when inside school buildings to allowing them to carry their firearms. Three years ago, there was no public discourse on this change, no opportunity for any part of the school community to give input. I testified before the board at the time and organized a petition opposing this bill and the lack of transparency in the decision-making process.
Realizing their mistake, board members pulled the bill, and the issue was tabled until the board and school administration could determine what role the school police should have regarding discipline, etc. This summer, work on that issue was completed, so the board felt it was time to revisit the issue. Last week’s forum was the beginning of a discussion that includes all stakeholders.
In 2015, I was confused as to why the change was being sought. There seemed to be some missing catalyst not being discussed publicly. At the forum last week, I got the answer to “why.” The school police testified to feeling vulnerable in schools without their firearms. They feel their lives are on the line inside our schools and their officers are without every resource to protect themselves. Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the school police union, said he doesn’t want one of his officers to lose their lives because they couldn’t retrieve their firearm in a timely manner. Someone said students don’t show proper respect for their authority because of empty holsters.
Let’s start there in terms of identifying the problem we must solve. I’m not going to go down the rabbit hole of what-ifs regarding that gun in the holster. I’m not going to argue there is nothing to fear from kids. I’m not going to discuss how respect doesn’t come from fear of losing one’s life. I’m going to assume these officers have a legitimate fear.
But their solution is still not the right one.
I learned another interesting fact at last week’s forum: BCPSS only employs 80 guidance counselors — There are 90 school police officers for 164 schools and only 80 guidance counselors. There are over 80,000 students enrolled in City Schools and clearly not enough staff to service them in our schools. There are not enough staff to monitor the halls during class changes, to keep unauthorized persons from being let in the building, to keep kids from making the ill-advised decisions they are going to make because they are kids.
Baltimore City is a unique district in terms of the poverty we carry and the violence in our neighborhoods. More of our kids suffer from lead poisoning. Our schools have a disproportionate amount of kids needing individualized education plans. Those challenges have an impact on our kids and their behavior in school. When hundreds of students spill into the hallways every 50 minutes to go to class, the resulting chaos can feel scary. Our school police feel they are on the “front lines” of this chaos — that’s the language they used.
That mentality that scares me.
Our school police feel vulnerable because they are being used to make up for the lack of staffing in our schools. The real problem is lack of adequate funding of our schools. Thornton was supposed to fix the funding problem, but Baltimore City Schools continued to be underfunded. Now our school police feel they must carry their firearms to be fully protected. But the real solution is to have more of the right staff in our schools to support our students. More teachers, more guidance counselors, more social workers, more special educators, more staff engaging deeply with kids helping them stay on the path to graduation. Let’s pave the path to graduation smooth and tear up the school-to-prison pipeline.
More guns may alleviate school officer fear, but it won’t make us safer. Many studies have been done that show in districts with officers armed with firearms, school shootings still take place.
Sergeant Boatwright, we are not “ACTORvists.” We care deeply about our kids. We have skin in the game. Your comments on social media and to the parents who disagree with you only serve to intimidate and shut down the dialogue that needs to take place. We are all in this together, and our goal is the success of every child in our school district. We need to come together to lobby the General Assembly for adequate funding and not distract from that conversation with fearmongering.
Aimee Harmon-Darrow is the mother of two city school students; her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.