Missing from the conversation are data-driven solutions and financing.
In the past year, since 17 students and staff were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, politicians and school districts across the United States have grappled with the issue of firearms, school safety and school climate. Some conservative elected officials, such as the President of the United States and United States Senator Ted Cruz, have endorsed the arming of teachers. Others have offered to increase security cameras or increase mental health support.
In Baltimore, a heavily Democratic city that lacks the resources needed for its public schools, local leaders have not debated whether to arm teachers, but they have debated whether to arm police officers with school.
The debate was not sparked by the Parkland shooting and actually dates back to 2015, when two state lawmakers quietly introduced bills to remove restrictions on police carrying guns in the area. Baltimore school. 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 jurisdiction in Maryland with its own sworn school police force; all others send armed local police or sheriff’s deputies to patrol schools.
Many in Baltimore reacted to the bills at the time with fury, and the legislation soon died. That was before the four-year spike in homicides in Baltimore, and last fall, state delegate Cheryl Glenn reintroduced a new version of the bill. The president of the school police union, Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, advocated for his colleagues to be allowed to carry guns, warning that the city could join Parkland and Newtown, Connecticut, in tragedy if the law is not changed.
Community advocates, students and civil rights groups have rallied against the proposal – pointing to the lack of evidence that arming school police helps reduce school shootings and protesting a militarized presence increased in public schools.
In late January, the 10-person Baltimore School Board voted unanimously against the proposal, prompting Glenn to withdraw his bill. About two weeks later, an employee was seriously injured in a high school shooting. In light of the incident, the school board reconsidered the proposal and ended up approving it by another 8-2 vote. The injured staff member supported the measure.
Glenn quickly reintroduced his bill, but in mid-March Baltimore’s full House delegation voted 10 to 5 against arming the city’s roughly 100 school police officers. Although that effectively killed the bill for the time being, Glenn, the chair of the delegation, suggested she could try again next year. Glenn’s office declined to comment for this story.
It’s not the first time in recent years that Baltimore lawmakers have felt political pressure to pass new gun measures in response to the violence, even when those measures were unsupported by evidence. In 2017, the Baltimore City Council voted 8 to 7 in favor of establishing a new mandatory minimum sentence for anyone caught in possession of an illegal firearm. The bill was watered down after public protests — 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 that there was no research to show the additional fine could deter crime. Yet the bill, in its original and final form, was supported by the city’s police commissioner and the mayor. The mayor, police commissioner and state attorney had also unsuccessfully advocated for new statewide mandatory minimums.
Ebony McKiver, a Baltimore high school teacher and member of the city’s Parent and Community Advisory Council — which, under Maryland state law, every school district must have to advise the local school board on various questions – says his group has been working to solicit feedback on the proposal to arm the school police and the response has been overwhelmingly negative.
“People aren’t totally against the idea of having armed school police, but there are so many issues that need to be addressed in our community before we arm them,” she says. “I believe all schools should practice an annual active fire drill, but how many practice with fidelity, how many have classrooms with locked doors at all times? Some schools don’t even have doors that lock. McKiver suggests that for the school police’s estimated price — $7 million — the city could fix every door that won’t lock, develop more sophisticated security protocols, and make sure every security camera is working.
Melissa Schober, a local parent, also argues that the money could be better spent elsewhere, saying the school district spends more on school policing than on social-emotional learning, climate and wellness interventions. Schober also says that while the city’s enrollment was 82% African American in 2016, 98.9% of school arrestees were black.
Student activists from the Baltimore Algebra Project say that in the future they plan to, among other things, push for a national student bill of rights, to see if there are other ways to make local decisions, including potentially adding students to the school board or creating an independent youth organization. Students also plan to push for more accountability measures for school police and a redirection of money that would have been used to arm school police to maintain and update school police camera systems.
McKiver says she hopes the city and school board will take the time to study the matter thoroughly before it is potentially reintroduced next year, by commissioning a formal study.
“Now is the time, and I don’t know if it’s a priority now that the bill has been killed,” she said. “And I can understand why because there are so many issues, with funding and everything, but it’s also the perfect time and I don’t want it to happen again next year and people s attack in the two weeks before a vote is held.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We originally incorrectly stated that the January shooting took place at a middle school and not a high school. We have updated this section.
Rachel Cohen is a DC-based freelance journalist and writer for The Intercept.