Originally published in Next City on April 3, 2019.
Over the last year, since 17 students and staff were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, politicians and school districts across the U.S. have been grappling with the issue of guns, school safety and school climate. Some conservative elected officials, like the president of the United States and U.S Senator Ted Cruz, have endorsed arming teachers. Others have proposed ramping up security cameras or beefing up mental health support.
In Baltimore, a heavily Democratic city that starves for necessary resources for its public schools, local leaders haven’t been debating whether to arm teachers, but they have been wrestling with whether to arm school police officers.
The debate wasn’t sparked by the Parkland shooting, and actually traces its roots back to 2015, when two state legislators quietly introduced bills to remove restrictions on Baltimore school police carrying guns. They were introduced at the request of the school district, which is the only one in the state where law enforcement officials cannot carry weapons. But Baltimore is also the only Maryland jurisdiction with its own sworn school police force; all others dispatch armed local police or sheriff deputies to patrol schools.
Many in Baltimore reacted to the bills at the time with fury, and the legislation quickly died. This was before Baltimore’s four-year spike in homicides, and this past fall, State Delegate Cheryl Glenn reintroduced a new version of the bill. The president of the school police union, Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, has been advocating for his colleagues to be permitted to carry weapons, warning the city could join Parkland and Newtown, Connecticut, in tragedy if the law isn’t changed.
Community advocates, students and civil rights groups rallied against the proposal — pointing to a lack of evidence that arming school police helps to reduce school shootings, and protesting an increased militarized presence in public schools.
In late January the 10-person Baltimore school board voted unanimously against the proposal, prompting Glenn to withdraw her bill. Roughly two weeks later, an employee was seriously injured in a shooting at a high school. In light of the incident the school board reconsidered the proposal, and ended up approving it in a 8-2 revote. The injured staff member supported the measure.
Glenn quickly reintroduced her bill, but in mid-March, the full House delegation from Baltimore voted 10-5 against arming the city’s roughly 100 school police officers. While that effectively killed the bill for now, Glenn, the delegation chairwoman, suggested she may try again next year. Glenn’s office declined to comment for this story.
This isn’t the first time in recent years Baltimore lawmakers felt political pressure to pass new gun measures in response to violence, even when those measures were not backed by evidence. In 2017 the Baltimore City Council voted 8-7 in support of establishing a new mandatory minimum penalty for someone caught carrying an illegal gun. The bill was weakened after public protest — it ended up adding a $1,000 fine to existing state law that already imposes a one-year minimum sentence on second-time offenders. Gun experts noted there was no research to show the additional fine might deter crime. Still, the bill, in both its original and final form, was supported by the city’s police commissioner and the mayor. The mayor, police commissioner and the state’s attorney had all also advocated unsuccessfully for new statewide mandatory minimums.
Ebony McKiver, a Baltimore high school teacher and member of the city’s Parent and Community Advisory Board — which under Maryland state law every school district must have to advise the local school board on various issues — says her group worked to solicit feedback on the proposal to arm school police officers and the response was overwhelmingly negative.
“People are not wholly opposed to having armed school police officers, but there are so many issues that need to be dealt with in our community first before arming them,” she says. “I believe all schools have to practice an annual active shooter drill, but how many are practicing with fidelity, how many have classrooms with doors locked at all times? Some schools don’t even have doors that lock.” McKiver suggests that for the estimated price tag of the school police force — $ 7 million — the city could fix every door that doesn’t lock, develop more sophisticated safety protocols and ensure all security cameras are working.
Melissa Schober, a local parent, also argues the money could be better spent elsewhere, saying the school district spends more on school police than on social emotional learning, climate and wellness interventions. Schober also says that even though the city’s school enrollment was 82 percent African-American in 2016, 98.9 percent of those arrested in school were black.
Student activists with the Baltimore Algebra Project say that going forward, they plan, among other things, to push for a national student bill of rights, to see if there are alternative ways to conduct local decision-making, including by potentially adding students to the school board or creating an independent youth body. Students also plan to press for more accountability measures for school police and a redirection of money that would have gone to arming school police to maintaining and updating school police camera systems.
McKiver says she hopes the city and school board take the time to study the issue thoroughly before it is potentially reintroduced next year, by commissioning a formal study.
“Now is the time, and I just don’t know if it’s a priority anymore now that the bill has been killed,” she says. “And I can understand why because there are so many issues, with funding and everything else, but this is also the perfect time and I don’t want this to be where it comes up again next year and people are grappling with it in the two weeks before a vote is held.”