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Rebuilding trust

Baltimore's legislative delegation on Friday backed off its support for a plan to allow the city's School Police Force, which is separate from the Baltimore City Police Department, to carry guns inside school buildings. The city school board never offered a convincing rationale for proposing armed guards in the hallways, and it hurt its own cause by attempting to slip the measure through without any public notice or debate. Given complaints by parents and students that allowing any guns in the schools would actually make them less safe, lawmakers' decision to drop the idea like a hot potato was hardly a surprise.

But now what? The board only belatedly recognized that the real issue parents are concerned about isn't school safety but whether police can be trusted with their children. That's what the board should be focusing on because if parents and students don't believe school officers can be trusted with guns, then they can't be trusted with nightsticks, mace or Tasers either. No one wants to see officers using lethal force against misbehaving or disobedient middle- and high-school students. But unfortunately, given the frayed relations between the city's police forces and the communities they serve, many parents see that as an all-too-real possibility.

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The potential for a violent incident being instigated by police officers in the schools they are supposed to be protecting was graphically illustrated recently when a school surveillance camera recorded images of a city school police officer apparently attacking three middle school girls — ages 11, 13 and 14 — with her fists and a nightstick as other students and staff looked on in horror. The video, which was broadcast by television news outlets and widely circulated on social media, shows the female officer raising the baton high over her head to strike one of the girls, who is seen frantically trying to escape the blow by backing into the school office.

Another image shows one of the victims bloodied and dazed after the encounter, with bandages covering the contusions on her forehead and her clothes in disarray and spattered with dark crimson spots. And though the unedited video suggests the attack was unprovoked, the three girls were later handcuffed, arrested and expelled from school. (After the video surfaced all charges against the three girls were dropped, and the officer, Lakisha Pulley, was recently indicted by a grand jury on first- and second-degree assault charges and three counts of reckless endangerment.)

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With that incident fresh in mind, is it any wonder that so many parents and students objected to allowing school police officers to carry guns inside school buildings?

Most of the time, the sorts of school disciplinary problems that are inevitable whenever large numbers of groups of teens are brought together are better handled by school administrators and trained staff, rather than police. There is simply no need to criminalize the vast majority of conduct in schools. But there are times when the presence of a police officer is necessary. On exceedingly rare occasions, it may also be helpful for an officer to be armed. But the school board now needs to realize that its goal to keep its charges safe is compromised by a lack of faith in those it has entrusted to do the job.

The situation calls for much more engagement with those parents and students who raised their voices in objection to the plan to arm school police. The school board needs to lead the effort and to determine what's driving the mistrust. The first step should be an apology for trying to sneak the measure through without public input, and the next needs to be more dialogue between parents, students, administrators and police. Until school police officers have the trust and respect of those they're supposed to protect, the question of whether they're carrying guns should be the least of the district's worries.

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