The REACH Partnership school in Baltimore made headlines this week when a school police officer was seen slapping and kicking a male student. That police officer has been placed on administrative leave and the Baltimore Police Department — a separate entity from Baltimore’s school police force — has launched a criminal investigation.
But attorneys and juvenile justice experts in the area say that violent police encounters are common and contribute to the city’s robust school-to-prison pipeline.
“This is not an isolated incident of brutality,” Attorney Jennifer Egan, a public juvenile defender in Baltimore who specializes in school arrests, told ThinkProgress. She meets with students “every week and every month” who are assaulted by school officers.
Students, however, are the ones who pay the price.
Police were first stationed in the city’s schools in the 1990s, when tough-on-crime policies were implemented and the superpredator myth — that black youth were irrevocably violent and morally corrupt — fueled mass incarceration. Juvenile crime in Baltimore was dropping, but a Maryland statute created a school police force that enjoyed “all the powers of a law enforcement officer in the State.” Those officers have their own chief and command center, and do not operate under the BPD.
The statute empowered the Board of School Commissioners to create and implement policies to regulate school officers’ behavior and determine how the police force should be used. According to Egan, administrators have failed to establish those protocols and the presence of school police has grown. There are now 144 officers stationed in the city’s schools.
“That combined with zero tolerance policies really lead to over-reliance in schools and criminalization,” she said of today’s school climate. As a result, minor disciplinary infractions, including dress code violations, are now handled by officers — not teachers and administrators. Students who commit low level misdemeanors, such as disturbing or threatening people or school property, are targeted as well.
“You can imagine how many times a day 14-year-old children say ‘I’m gonna mess you up’ or ‘You just wait’ or all sorts of things that kids say in jest,” Egan explained. “You can imagine how easy it is to arrest and charge someone with disturbing a school when they’re issuing a threat.”
Most arrests are made for fighting on school property, even though Maryland law does not consider fighting a delinquent crime. Instead, the law specifically states “delinquent acts do not include conduct which has been traditionally treated as a matter of discipline to be handled administratively by the particular school.”
“There’s nothing that school discipline has handled more [or] for a longer time than school fights,” Egan pointed out. “And yet school police continue to arrest hundreds of children every year for that.”
No matter what the offense is, there are countless actors in the juvenile justice system that perpetuate the culture of heavy policing.
“Police [make] arrests, the Department of Juveniles formalizes charges, the state’s attorneys file charges, and the courts find them delinquent — all for behavior that law says is not delinquent,” Egan explained.
More often than not, students who are arrested and brought to the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center are formally charged. Statewide, 50.9 percent of school arrest cases are formalized, or passed along to states attorneys to take to court. In Baltimore, that figure is closer to 80 percent. The majority of those cases are thrown out.
Nevertheless, kids still walk away from the system with lasting damage. The first time a student is arrested, the likelihood of dropping out of school doubles. A first-time court appearance makes dropping out four times more likely.
“When you take a kid for a low level offense, especially a black kid in Baltimore, and put them in handcuffs and tell them they’re a criminal because they got in a scuffle at school or because they’re not wearing their uniform, you’re sending that child a message,” Egan said. “You’re telling them what they’re worth in our society. That affects how kids think about themselves and how they think about their futures.”
While police violence is an every day reality for Baltimore’s students, it tends to be invisible to the outside world. And those students who are bearing the brunt are too scared to speak up.
“Without video, it’s hard to prove and to show,” Egan noted. “Many students don’t feel comfortable filing charges because the school police officers were not disciplined, were not sanctioned, were not in trouble, and they have to go back to that school. If you file a complaint against a police officer and that person still has arrest power over you and you see them every day, it’s a very intimidating thing.”
The culture of fear is also supported by staff who rely on law enforcement to discipline students because they see no alternatives. Egan believes teachers and administrators haven’t taken full responsibility for the current climate. For example, when three middle school girls were assaulted by a school officer, school staff sat by and did nothing. The officer wasn’t sanctioned until the video was publicized three months after the incident occurred.
Adults who work in Baltimore schools, Egan says, have to take ownership of their environment and support students who are probably acting out due to trauma and hardship in their lives.
“The overall effect of having police in schools is to change the climate of our schools. It changes how kids think about themselves. It changes how administrators and teachers think about their kids. It changes how it feels to walk into a building,” Egan concluded. “If we don’t stop treating kids like criminals for things that they do that are kid stuff, then the effects ripple deep and long into their lives.”