On a spring day last year, the staff of Frederick Douglass High School crammed into the media center for training on active shooter drills. Truthfully, I wasn’t concerned. Our kids deal with death and violence regularly, but schools are fairly safe.
But on Feb. 8th, a Friday, I was glad for that training.
My U.S. history classroom is near “Broadway and Main” — the busy intersection on the first floor. Lunchtime can be extra loud, so when I heard a commotion, I stuck my head outside. I heard screams and an administrator shouting “Lockdown! Lockdown!”
I locked my door, a student turned off the lights, and the class crowded in the corner. We remained hidden for an hour as we learned that a student’s family member had entered the building with a gun and shot Coach Marks, a special education paraprofessional.
A few weeks ago, many of us celebrated the school board’s decision not to support a bill to allow school police to carry guns in school. Currently guns are locked in the school police office, right near the main entrance, when the officers come to work.
Even now, I’m glad this legislation will not advance.
Our students come to us to be safe and to escape whatever occurs outside of school. Ask any teacher in a low-income community why the most challenging kids are there every day: It’s because they need meals, a safe place to hang out with their friends and to forget whatever is going on outside of the school building for seven hours at a time.
For students, there can be trauma in seeing a police uniform. Many of our students have experienced the bad policing that has made Baltimore infamous. A police uniform can represent fear, extrajudicial violence and threats. Seeing that uniform patrolling a school with a gun could make it impossible to learn. We see the countless videos of school police officers abusing children or handcuffing elementary school students; imagine what those situations would be like if the officer had a gun.
School police arrest black students at a disproportionately higher rate: Black students comprise 80 percent of the district’s students but 98 percent of the arrests. Given this disparity, it is likely that any use of force by school police would follow the same pattern.
Baltimore City Public Schools spends roughly $7 million on school police, which is more than the entire budget for social-emotional needs of students and classroom accommodations for students with disabilities combined. With that money, the district could hire 120 social workers, 50 nurse practitioners or 60 school counselors. These funds could be used to support clubs and extracurricular programming, which are proven to improve achievement and engagement. Douglass can no longer afford our debate team, chess team and poetry club due to budget cuts. School police funding should come out of the police budget, or it should not get spent at all. Our priorities are out of line.
I love our school police officer. Everyone at Douglass does. I was thinking of him as I sat in my room after the kids were dismissed early via a back entrance because the main entrance was an active crime scene. A few years ago, he beat-boxed at our school talent show while a student rapped. He has done more for community-police relationships than the BPD ever could. Even with an excellent school police officer, the repeated examples of gun violence in schools throughout the country have demonstrated that armed officers are ineffective at preventing school shootings.
After the lockdown, our principal pledged that we would make sure our school is safe. He was adamant though: “We won’t kneejerk.” Arming school police would be applying a kneejerk reaction that has already been rejected. The Parent and Community Advisory Board as well as staff and student groups spoke out against this legislation in January, and the school board unanimously agreed. Our kids can’t afford a kneejerk response.
Keeping our students safe is paramount, and the outpouring of love our school community has received is heartening. As we look for ways to better support our students following Friday’s tragedy, we must focus on what students and staff want and need. We have to get this right.
Let’s support students by providing them with social workers, health care professionals and counselors. Let’s support students by providing them with enriching clubs and extracurricular programming. These are the programs that will make our students and communities safer.