Baltimore Students Deserve to Feel Safe

by: Monique Dixon and Nicole Dooley Special to the AFRO
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Last year a Baltimore school police officer pled guilty to assault charges for slapping and kicking a 16-year-old student. In 2015, another school police officer pled guilty to assault charges after walloping an unarmed middle school on the forehead with a baton and pepper spraying two other girls.

These examples of excessive force demonstrate a larger problem for Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) where almost half of BCPS students believe police use excessive force to resolve conflicts. In response to these and other concerns BCPS will present new policies detailing the roles and responsibilities of school police to the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners March 20.

The new policies must address excessive use of force, provide due process and formal mechanisms for students and their families to file complaints, as well as address concerns regarding the relationship between the Baltimore School Police Force (BSPF) and the Baltimore Police Department.

All students deserve to learn in safe and supportive school environments. That is not always the reality for Baltimore students, especially those of color, who face heightened risk of being referred to law enforcement for typical school behaviors.

During the 2013-14 school year—the most recent U.S. Department of Education data available —95% of students referred to law enforcement in BCPS were Black, even though they comprised 84% of the student population. Moreover, Maryland Office of the Public Defender data reveals that only about 17 percent of students arrested at Baltimore schools are ultimately found to be delinquent in juvenile court. In most cases, the facts leading to arrest are not sustained in court, suggesting that the incident could have been resolved without police.

Fortunately, the BSPF is taking steps to avoid the use of excessive force and limit school-based arrests. Since taking the helm as Baltimore City Schools Police Chief in March 2016, Akil Hamm contributed to a reduction in school-based arrests and launched trainings for school police officers on how to work effectively with students.

In the coming weeks we will see how Baltimore’s school police policies will promote more positive change. It is imperative that Chief Hamm, BCPS, and the education advocacy community collaborate and craft fair policies that protect the safety and civil rights of all students.

To be effective, the new policies require a clearly delineated, limited role for school police. Policies must lay out what student behavior should and will be handled through school processes versus serious criminal misconduct that may result in police involvement.

Sound school policies must replace unwarranted arrests and excessive use of police force with effective de-escalation techniques and effective programs. They also require a formal complaint process so that students, families, and school staff can hold school police accountable for abuse or misconduct. This entails school police improving data collection and public reporting of school-based referrals and arrests.

Additionally, school officials must address the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) concerns about the agreement between school police and the Baltimore Police Department that allows school police to patrol city streets and make arrests off school campuses. Members of the school community should be alarmed, as the DOJ is, that the agreement fails to indicate which agency is in control of incidents and responsible for investigating any complaints when both agencies were involved.

Baltimore City Public Schools officials have a duty to create safe and supportive learning environments for students. It is up to Baltimore parents, students and other school community members to review and comment on these new school police policies to ensure all students are treated fairly and feel safe in their schools.

Monique Dixon and Nicole Dooley are attorneys with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.