City school police seek better benefits for injuries in line of duty

They are classified as civilians in city pension system instead of sworn police officers

  • Joseph Baribeault, a school police officer injured in the line-of-duty, but who retired this year with no line-of-duty disability pay due to a mis-classification of police officers in the city pension system.
Joseph Baribeault, a school police officer injured in the line-of-duty,… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
March 09, 2013|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

When city school police officer Joseph Baribeault attempted to arrest two combative students at the old Greenspring Middle School, he ended up injured at the bottom of two flights of concrete stairs.

Even though the city has acknowledged his disabilities from the incident, he has been left without pay and benefits for being injured in the line of duty — all because members of the School Police Force are classified as civilians in Baltimore's pension system

"In July, I got a life-saving award, and months later, I'm on food stamps," said Baribeault, 36, who retired this year because of his injuries after seven years on the force. "We're held to the same standard as [the city Police Department], but when we get hurt, we're out the door."

As cities across the country debate placing police officers or armed guards in schools, those who have been protecting Baltimore students for decades are fighting to overhaul a policy that they say denies officers pay and benefits when they are seriously injured on the job.

Baltimore school police officers face a high standard — they have to lose half a limb or a body function to receive the same benefits afforded to their law enforcement counterparts around the state.

The department's union leaders say that the recent string of high-profile school shootings around the country, including one in neighboring Baltimore County, highlights the need to protect those whose duty it is to step into the line of fire.

"The expectation is that our officers would throw themselves between danger and the children of Baltimore City," said Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge that represents the 142-member force. "But we're expected to do it without those built-in safeguards to protect us and our families, like every other law enforcement officer in Maryland has."

The city school police is the only force in the state solely designated to protecting a public school system. Officers are armed, undergo the same training as Baltimore police and have citywide jurisdiction.

In addition to protecting Baltimore's 85,000 students, school police officers are regularly called upon to supplement city policing efforts by providing extra patrols at the Inner Harbor and manning large events such as the recent Ravens Super Bowl victory parade.

With a physical examination and a doctor's note, most disabled public safety officers — including Baltimore police officers, officers who patrol university campuses and Maryland Transportation Authority police — can apply to obtain line-of-duty benefits equaling two-thirds of their pay, in addition to an annuity of their pension.

But city school officers have to prove they have suffered a 50 percent anatomical loss or the function of a body part, or 25 percent loss of two, to receive the same benefits.

"We operate under the mindset of 'Serve, protect — just don't get hurt,'" Boatwright said.

Union and school system officials are working on a plan to address the issue. It would require a shift to the city's fire and police pension systems or the state's law enforcement pension system, or a move by the City Council to eliminate the 50 percent threshold. The union would prefer to be under the state's law enforcement pension system.

City officials said they would be open to discussing how school police benefits can be aligned with other law enforcement.

"It's something that we have to have a serious conversation about when you're talking about people who put their lives on the line," said City Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

But the move would come as the city looks for ways to overhaul its pension system, including requiring more city workers to contribute to their retirement funds, and the police and fire departments to shift to a 401(k) plan.

"We know now in this country that there is no such thing as schools being too safe," Scott said. "But everything we do has to take into consideration not just today's emotions, and not just today's issues, but 10, 20, 30 years down the line."

Currently, school police officers often have to go through lengthy hearing processes before the city's pension board, and some have taken legal action to obtain the benefit. Officers can file claims within five years of an injury. Union leaders say that the force logs an average of about 30 injuries per year.

By the time many emerge from the process, officers and union leaders say, they find themselves on the losing end.

Baribeault, who served in various law enforcement agencies across the state for 16 years, said he gave up his dream job as a narcotics detective to join the city school police in 2005.

"I did this to be a better father, police officer and person," he said. "Ultimately this police department and school system punished me for it. They have always known we were in the wrong pension and still sent us out into potential danger as 'civilians.'"

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