Zero-based daydreaming

Wiley A. Hall

April 07, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall

OK, I confess that I don't really want to see the entire city school police force disbanded, which is what I wrote a couple of weeks ago.

Times are tough enough already without tossing more families out on the streets.

And, I know that the men and women who patrol the city's schools are dedicated, hard-working, well-meaning people.

But, I believe in zero-based daydreaming.

I believe that you start by dreaming the kind of environment in the schools you would like to see and work from there.

And, in the best of all possible worlds, I would rather see the students, even the naughty ones, treated like children in need of guidance than potential criminals who must be policed.

My question is this: Why can't Baltimore become the best of all possible worlds?

Over the past several days I have received dozens of calls from teachers, administrators and police officers who insist that they want what I want.

Unfortunately, they noted, they don't have the luxury of living, as I do, in a dream world.

"We've got over 108,000 kids in the school system and I would venture to say that 98 percent are good kids who do the right thing, follow the rules, want to make something of themselves," said an official of the school police union.

"But we've got a certain small percentage who are involved in things on a daily basis," this officer said. "They bring weapons into the schools. They bring drugs. They want to assault people. For this small percentage, we've got to do what we've got to do to protect the students who want to learn and the teachers who want to teach."

This officer, like virtually everyone else who responded to my first column, insisted that the school system can tell the difference, that it can nurture the "good" kids while cracking down on, and getting rid of, the "bad" ones.

But I think they are fooling themselves. Bureaucracies have never been that nimble.

And once you start differentiating between the "good" kids who can be saved and the "bad" ones who are lost causes, you will find yourself plunging down the proverbial slippery slope.

Who decides when a kid is beyond redemption? Where do you draw the line between misbehavior and criminal behavior? How do you ensure that the decision makers are acting fairly?

I think school officials are tumbling head over heels down that slope at this very minute.

As I said, many of the people who responded to my column appeared to care a great deal about the children placed in their charge. They acknowledged that poor administrators might abuse the presence of police by calling upon them inappropriately.

They noted that past superintendents have sent repeated memos warning administrators and teachers against calling police to handle routine disciplinary matters.

But I have to tell you that I received just as many calls from people in the system who seemed to paint all of the children placed in their charge with a broad damning brush.

They described the schools as "out of control," a "war zone" populated by "thugs" with no home training, no values and no respect for authority.

"All of the children?" I asked one teacher.

"Well, most of them, anyway," she answered.

How widespread is that view?

Too widespread.

A couple of years ago, a study by the National Coalition of Advocates for Children found that Baltimore had one of the 10 highest suspension rates in the country.

This year alone, according to officials, police have made over 1,200 arrests in the first five months of the school year.

Now, you must understand that the school police force is a tool to be used to ensure the safety of students and faculty.

But there is very little evidence that the system has used that tool wisely in the past.

And although I do not doubt the good intentions of many in the system, nothing I have heard these past several days convinces me that the system as a whole is capable of using that tool wisely in the future.

I feel for the police officers. I feel even more for the children.

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