Originally published in VICE on March 9th, 2016.
An eight-second video was released last week showing a Baltimore school police officer attacking an unarmed student while another cop stood by and watched. The clip went viral and spurred national outrage, as well as calls for a federal investigation. The two officers, Anthony Spence and Saverna Bias, turned themselves in Tuesday night to face second-degree assault and misconduct in office charges—Spence is also charged with second-degree child abuse—and had posted bail by early Wednesday. But with criminal trials still pending for the six cops charged over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray last year, the footage has stoked an already strained conversation around policing in Baltimore City.
Upon the clip’s release, politicians and advocates quickly began to criticize the city’s ill-defined school police policies, pointing out that there are no public arrest statistics, including who gets busted, why, and whether those incidents might have been handled outside the criminal justice system. There’s also little or no oversight of the school police budget and officers’ use of force. All of which is especially alarming given that policing aside, Maryland actually has some of the most progressive school discipline policies in the country—at least on paper.
Still, a lack of leadership and a persistent culture of criminalization within public schools have the city suspending, expelling, and arresting students too often—and in discriminatory fashion.
Baltimore’s unique place in America’s school discipline hierarchy emerged over the past decade. In 2004, the city’s school issued more than 26,000 suspensions in a school district of 88,000. Alarmed city advocates began speaking out, forming networks to push for disciplinary alternatives, and fighting for district leaders to reckon with the glaring suspension data. Research has long shown that excessive suspensions and expulsions are tied to higher rates of school absence, school drop-outs, and academic failure. Suspended students often sit around at home, or in low-quality alternative programs, falling further behind on their studies. There’s also evidence that school suspensions lead to higher rates of arrest and juvenile detentions, fueling what is commonly referred to as the “school to prison pipeline.”
In 2007, Baltimore hired a new school CEO, Andres Alonso, who began overhauling the district’s school discipline policies. He worked to scale back not only the scope of offenses that could warrant an out-of-school suspension, but also expanded the number of restorative alternatives to keep kids in class and on top of their school work.
The results were dramatic. During the 2009-2010 school year, the district issued fewer than 10,000 suspensions, a decrease of more than 50 percent from 2004. The suspensions were also significantly shorter, and graduation rates went up, particularly for young black men.
“One of the things that really sets us apart from other school districts is that students can no longer be suspended for low-level and ambiguous infractions, such as disrespect,” explains Karen Webber, director of the Education and Youth Development at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, a local think tank and advocacy group. “Before, a child might say something edgy, and if an administrator didn’t appreciate what was said or how it was stated, that child could be sent home for five days.”
Advocates around the state began to push for similar reforms, and in 2014 the State Board of Education approved new regulations to reduce the numbers of suspensions and expulsions across Maryland. The new policies encouraged teachers and principals to keep students in the classroom whenever possible and to promote alternative disciplinary measures. And the feds took notice: In light of Baltimore’s substantial drop in suspensions, and the statewide work done around discipline reform, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder came to Baltimore in 2014 to unveil the first set of national school discipline guidelines.
But even as suspensions have plummeted, critics point to a series of disturbing school police scandals and argue that Baltimore City still hasn’t implemented many of the progressive policies passed statewide two years ago. The district hired a new CEO that year, Dr. Gregory Thornton, who has made less of a fuss about school discipline reform.
“You can have the most promising policies on the books but rules are only as good as their implementation,” says Monique Dixon, deputy director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“While there’s been great work done to write these policies, those changes have not been filtered down to the staff level—nobody has been retrained,” adds Jenny Egan, a juvenile public defender in Baltimore.
For example, some suspended Baltimore students languish for months outside of school just because the district failed to make a final decision about their punishment. Neeta Pal, a legal fellow at the Maryland Public Defender’s office, says that when the district leaves students in this bureaucratic limbo—indefinitely suspended—it violates both state law and the US constitution.
One such student was 15-year-old Kuran Johnson, a ninth grader with a disability who was suspended this past October. Johnson spent four months in an alternative program, and was only allowed to return back to a traditional public school a few weeks ago after Nicole Joseph, an attorney with the Maryland Disability Law Center, threatened to sue. “This is their way to get rid of kids,” Sabrina Newby, Johnson’s grandmother, tells me over the phone. “They feel these kids are so easy to suspend, and then they wonder why kids end up dropping out or wind up in juvenile facilities.”
Following the standoff between students and police back during the April 2015 Freddie Gray protests, Karl Perry, a Baltimore high school principal, penned a memo in which he attributed the local uprising in part to their “soft code of conduct.” He promised a “return to zero-tolerance enforcement,” and within two months, he was hired to be the district’s Chief Supports Officer—overseeing, among other things, suspensions and school police.
Joseph wrote an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun criticizing Perry’s remarks, arguing that zero-tolerance policies “feed the school-to-prison pipeline” and increase the likelihood at-risk students will be excluded from school. She called for reforms like increasing the number of mental health providers, promoting positive behavior interventions, and increasing engaging curriculum and job skills training.
She points out that in Baltimore, despite all the changes and national attention, black students and those with disabilities are still suspended at higher rates than the general student population.
“Yes, suspension numbers have gone down, in almost every district across the state, but the disproportionately is not going down,” Joseph says in an interview. “Both by race, and also for students with disabilities, these minority groups are not experiencing the same reduction in harsh discipline that non-disabled and white kids are.”
Officials with the Baltimore City Public Schools did not return repeated requests for comment on Perry’s remarks, on students left in suspension limbo, and on whether the district feels it has adequately implemented the state’s discipline regulations. Meanwhile, critics see the suspensions, expulsions, arrests and abuse cases as part of the same problem—a school culture that tries to kick students out rather than engage them where they are, as they are.
“We know so many of our kids have serious challenges, and one of the goals of our schools should be to address them, to help them, and not to punish them,” Egan says. “We have to change the culture so that schools actually take kids as they come. We can’t just pass the buck.”