The unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray is another in a string of events bringing attention to police conduct across the nation. Baltimore schools are sharing the spotlight, as policymakers reflect on the effect Baltimore students and school police officers have on each other, and the education system as a whole.
Baltimore City schools contain 10% of Maryland’s students, but make up 90% of the state’s school-based criminal referrals. The Baltimore Sun found that in a single year, Baltimore City school employees had filed over 300 workers’ comp claims as a result of assaults by or conflicts with students.
Baltimore is the only area in Maryland with a school police force separate from municipal police. This winter, the city began contemplating whether school police should be allowed to carry guns during classes. Proponents argued that it was necessary to defend against school shootings, and that other police officers working in Maryland schools are allowed to carry them. The bill was withdrawn before it could go to a vote.
In Baltimore schools, officers in hallways and classrooms are often perceived by students as a threat instead of protection. This winter, a local NBC affiliate showed surveillance video wherein a school officer beat a middle-school girl with a baton.
Darius Craig, the student council president at Digital Harbor High and the organizer of a march at his school, was quoted by Emma Brown in the Washington Post about the violence:
What happened with Freddie Gray is a similar issue with our school policing, but on a larger scale. In the outside world, some people are being killed. But in our schools, they’re just being beaten, assaulted, and … arrested.
There are many students who feel as if the school police are out of line, they take their power out of hand, that it’s more like outside policing rather than school policing. What we want is for the police to show the students that they care, that they’re here to help, to keep us safe.
Rais Akbar, a juvenile justice organizer for Advocates for Children and Youth, said:
There clearly needs to be a light shined on what’s happening in Baltimore City schools. What really needs to happen in Baltimore is there needs to be a clear set of governing policies that delineate what the role of an officer in school is going to be.
Chief Marshall Goodwin, a native of West Baltimore and the head of the city’s school police force, said he is working to alleviate tensions between students and officers and to encourage police to serve more as mentors.
As the city calms down and school functions return to normal, as Deb Belt of Patch noted, more people are turning their attention to the state of Baltimore at large and what can be done to improve the quality of life for its citizens. Julian Zelizer of CNN writes that the conditions after the riots in the 1960s were exacerbated by President Johnson’s inability to adequately address the social conditions leading to the riots, and that we should avoid the same outcome after the unrest in Baltimore.
Some say that Baltimore has a school-to-prison pipeline that prevent many from finishing high school. Kalman R. Hettleman, a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary, noted in the Baltimore Sun that this is a time to take a wider look at how Baltimore city schools are failing their socioeconomically disadvantaged students, and how this might contribute to the high crime rates of the city’s schools and high police involvement.
The severe underfunding of urban public schools, he says, leads to bigger classes with less resources and less personal attention. As dropout rates are correlated with justice system involvement, keeping students engaged and successful in school might be key to avoiding juvenile delinquency and a criminal record.
There has been an encouraging drop in the suspension rate in Baltimore city schools (from 11,000 in 2012 to 7,500 in 2014), but there is still a long way to go.