City delegation rejects guns in schools for police

Officers in the Baltimore school system’s police force won’t be able to carry guns inside schools any time soon.

The city’s delegation in Annapolis effectively killed legislation Friday that would have lifted the prohibition, putting an end to a contentious debate that divided the community.

So for the time being, Baltimore’s school police will remain the only police officers in the state forbidden to have firearms within public schools while classes are in session.

“We couldn’t come up with a consensus,” said Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of the city’s House delegation, explaining the decision. Anderson, a Democrat, had sponsored the bill at the city school board’s request.

The delegation unanimously decided to table discussion on the legislation in the House of Delegates. Anderson said he will ask the House Judiciary Committee to cancel next week’s public hearing on the matter.

Friday’s move by the House members effectively quashes any chance a bill will pass in the General Assembly this year, lawmakers said. Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said she considers the bill dead.

Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the school police union, said the delegation “did not get this one right.”

“In a city with as much crime and violence, I’m deeply saddened to know that Baltimore City students won’t have the same protections that every other K-12 student in the state of Maryland has,” Boatwright said.

1-member school police force is the only one in Maryland dedicated exclusively to protecting a school district. The officers have jurisdiction throughout the city and can carry firearms while patrolling outside school grounds or when detailed to help the Baltimore Police Department with major events.

In other districts, members of the traditional police force provide security at schools and don’t have special rules about carrying firearms inside buildings.

The city school board asked for the legislation to bring school police officers’ practices in line with their counterparts around the state.

Shanaysha Sauls, city school board president, said the board “certainly made a misstep by not having an open conversation before we introduced the legislation.”

She called the input the board eventually received “sharply divided.”

School board hearing

“But those affected by the legislation, students and staff in schools, felt very strongly that not only is the measure needed for safety, but most saw their police officers as being an important part of the school community,” she said. “That said, we certainly respect the views of the members of the community and the views of the city delegation.”

School police officials have acknowledged that officers often carry their weapons anyway.

Sauls said the board will enforce the current law.

“Now that we’re aware of the letter and spirit of the law, we will ensure we conduct ourselves in accordance with the law while ensuring that students and staff members are safe,” she said.

City school officials did not specify how they plan to adjust their practices to comply with the law. In a statement, the district said the school police chief and his staff “are busy implementing enhanced protocols that are within the framework of the current law.”

The city’s administrators and teachers unions surveyed their members. Both unions said the overwhelming majority of their educators supported the school police being armed at all times.

The proposal to grant that authority to school police officers drew a passionate crowd to a school board hearing on the issue last week.

Some argued that police needed to be prepared for another Newtown, a reference to the 2012 shooting that killed 20 elementary school students in Connecticut.

Others contended that weapons would make students feel like criminals in a city where many need a reprieve from the presence of guns.

Parents and state lawmakers said they believed the issue needed to be explored and vetted further.

Aimee Harmon-Darrow, a city school parent, helped launch a petition calling for the withdrawal of the legislation until it was publicly debated. The petition had more than 1,740 signatures Friday.

Harmon-Darrow said the legislation was a “catalyst to a dialogue that needs to happen in Baltimore City regarding the role of school police, discipline policies and overall school climate issues.”

“I hope the school board recognizes the need for this discussion and engages parents in an open dialogue.”

Del. Antonio Hayes, a Democrat, suggested to his colleagues they end discussion on the bill this year without voting for or against it, a proposal that quickly drew support at the delegation’s meeting Friday morning.

Hayes said the bill was premature because the school board did not vet it — let alone mention it — to the public in advance. Last week’s hearing was held after state lawmakers insisted on it, delegates said.

The school board “didn’t take the time to air it out in public,” Hayes said. “It was so clandestine. When they finally did schedule a hearing, it had what, three or four days’ notice? Even the people who would have supported it felt like the public had not been able to weigh in.”

Del. Mary Washington, who did not support the legislation, noted that the decision to table was unanimous.

“There were so many unanswered questions, and there wasn’t enough data provided to us to take action,” she said. “Rather than winning a particular vote, what was more important was to have a comprehensive policy that would really make a difference in the lives of our students.”

Boatwright, the school police union president, said the force would have to convene to “rethink how services are going to be provided to schools.”

He said he believed the decision could make the district a “laughingstock” in a country where the dialogue is overwhelmingly in favor of taking every safety precaution possible to protect schools from acts of violence.

“In a country where we’re talking about arming teachers, Baltimore has decided to disarm the police,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

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