City's students should be treated like students, not criminals

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

March 24, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Officers of the city's school police force say they cannot patrol the city's schools effectively without body armor and weapons. The city is giving them the body armor. I have a better idea. They ought to disband the force entirely. . . .

*

When I asked the Baltimore County school administrator about handcuffing students, he was almost too shocked and appalled to speak.

It was as if I had shouted obscenities into the phone.

"We don't handcuff our students," he said at last. "I've been in this school system for over 22 years and I've never, ever seen a student handcuffed.

"When we've had to make an arrest, for instance when a student has violated our weapons policy or our policy against drug abuse, they have been expelled from school first and then the county police have arrested them off of school property to avoid a spectacle.

"Treating students like criminals generally is not something we consider appropriate for our children."

In Anne Arundel County, juveniles are arrested on school property only as a last resort. Officials try first to locate a parent.

"We're not in the business of making examples of youngsters," said an Anne Arundel school administrator. "This isn't some macho power thing to teach students a lesson."

Variations of the same policy are in effect in all of the metropolitan school systems.

In the city, of course, students are handcuffed and hauled off by police almost as a matter of routine.

There were 1,200 arrests in the first five months of this school year, almost all on school property.

Apparently, nothing is too obscene for city kids.

"We probably are arresting too many kids," school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey sadly agreed. "Those figures strike me as too high. There is a need for sensitivity training on how to deal with youngsters instead of this catch them and lock them up mentality.

"I probably shouldn't say this," Amprey continued. "It probably isn't politic. But I see a pervasive police state mentality growing in our schools."

Aptly put.

The city school system has its own 90-member police force, each member trained under standards established by the Maryland Police Training Commission.

Most middle schools and all high schools have a uniformed police officer on the premises.

Close to a third of the system's officers are armed, although armed officers are not stationed inside the schools -- at least not yet.

Soon, half of the officers will be equipped with body armor. What's next? Attack dogs and barbed wire?

Many other urban systems take similar pains against their children, so Baltimore is not unique. But most of these precautions would be unthinkable in the suburbs. When problems occur, suburban systems prefer that whenever possible they be handled by educators instead of trained police officers.

Given a choice, I think I'd prefer that city students were treated like kids in Howard and Montgomery counties, rather than kids in New York City and Washington.

The big question, though, is whether city kids deserve to be treated like their suburban counterparts. Are the city's children so much worse? So uncontrollable?

Are they vicious people who must be surrounded by armed guards or are they children?

I took a poll these past few days and found city teachers divided on the question.

Out of 20 teachers polled, 13 said they did not feel in the least bit threatened by their students. But seven teachers, including some in the same school, said they were fearful.

"Order has got to be restored," said one middle school teacher. "I cannot teach effectively, in fact, no one can teach effectively, and the students cannot learn, until we feel safe. What goes on here, the language, the violence, is absolutely unbelievable."

But another teacher in the same school insisted that the teachers who respected their students got respect in return.

"The whole wide city forgets who we're talking about," she said. "These are just kids. To hear some of my colleagues talking, you'd think they were miniature John Dillingers."

I found an interesting pattern in my survey. The teachers who feared their students said the environment was such that teaching and learning were difficult.

The teachers who were not afraid said they were teaching just fine and, in fact, found their students eager to learn.

I wonder if I wasn't seeing the difference between the good teachers and the bad ones? Is it the children who are uncontrollable or some teachers who have lost control?

I propose that we test this by hiring fewer police officers and more effective teachers.

No. I propose we disband the school police.

When you treat children like criminals, they become criminal-like in their behavior.

I propose we start treating them like children who have come to school to learn and see what happens.

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