At a time when reported violence in Baltimore schools has surged, the police who patrol them told city lawmakers that they're overwhelmed daily and in dire need of more staff and equipment.
City Council members heard that sentiment repeatedly as about 15 members of the school police force turned out for a packed six-hour hearing on school violence.
"Sometimes, I feel like the little Dutch boy with my finger in the dike -- and how long? I'm tired," said John Jones, a 23-year veteran of the school police who serves as community relations officer. "I don't know how to hold it in there without help. Come and listen to my radios when my officers call and they're all alone. . . . We need your help."
The school police force, which had around 100 officers just two years ago, has dwindled because of retirements and attrition and now numbers only 82 active officers. Of those, 55 patrol primarily in the city's 19 high schools and 23 middle schools daily.
Another 14 are tactical officers who respond to emergencies, but must do so in their civilian cars because the city provides none; and 10 patrol school buildings at night. Six officers of a total budgeted force of 89 are on long-term medical leave, and one is working temporary duty with the city police.
Officer Jones and other school police say at least 50 additional officers are needed immediately to keep schools safe.
Maj. Linda Flood, a Baltimore City police veteran tapped by Superintendent Walter G. Amprey to serve temporarily as his second interim school police chief, told lawmakers that the force needs at least 25 more officers.
The calls for expanding the school police force came as more than 125 people -- including principals, teachers, education advocates, union leaders, school system staffers, students and parents -- crammed council chambers. About 40 people testified, outlining existing violence-prevention measures and calling for more efforts, particularly more police and alternative programs or schools for the most disruptive students.
Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who hopes to unseat Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke next fall, said the rising school violence demonstrates the need for a hard look at spending priorities to try to find money to improve safety.
While praising some existing efforts, such as peer-mediation programs and anti-violence campaigns, she added: "I'm concerned, however, about the school system response about the need to safeguard our children. . . . I happen to believe that inside a school -- and on the way to and from school -- these children have a right to be safe."
Last spring, after almost a year's work, a 15-member task force appointed by Dr. Amprey found serious understaffing in the school police force.
But school system leaders say a shortage of cash has prevented expansion of the school police.
Statistics released this fall show a sharp upsurge in reported incidents. Reported gun incidents soared to the highest level in a decade during 1993-1994. These incidents -- assaults, robberies and possession of firearms -- rose 42.5 percent, from 47 in 1992-1993 to 67 last school year, the highest since 1983-1984, when school police reported 122 gun cases.
Reported assaults with deadly weapons, including guns and knives, nearly doubled, from 56 to 104. Armed and unarmed attacks on students, teachers, other staff and school police officers climbed 14.7 percent, to 1,387. And 302 teachers and other staffers and 63 school police officers were assaulted in 1993-1994.
The school system attributed the increases, in part, to better reporting resulting from more awareness, anti-violence campaigns, community meetings and a 24-hour hot line to report offenses.
But critics, including the teachers union, lawmakers, some school staffers and school police, call the city's school security and discipline inadequate and say that schools are growing more dangerous.
In response to calls for an alternative school for disruptive middle school children, Dr. Amprey set up a program but changed operators three times in his four years: Woodbourne Center Inc., a private, nonprofit company, became the latest operator of the alternative school next to Lemmel Middle School. The company is slated to receive $500,000 this year to provide services to 60 troubled youths; however, Woodbourne officials astounded council members last night when they said only 17 youths are enrolled, leaving 43 empty seats.