School Violence Once Again Takes Center Stage in Baltimore City Public Schools
(BALTIMORE - May 6, 2008) - School violence has once again raised its ugly head in the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS). On April 4th, Reginald F. Lewis High School teacher Jolita Berry was brutally assaulted by one of her students in front of her entire class.
The incident made national news and was profiled on the “The Today Show” in which anchor Matt Lauer interviewed Berry.
Once again, there were calls-to-action from the community across local print, radio and television channels. On Monday, April 21st, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon joined Dr. Andres Alonso in a forum, “Solutions for School Safety,” at the PDC Northern Learning Center.
A packed audience of teachers, union representatives and education advocates were on hand to hear Dixon and Dr. Alonso address issues such as lack of consistent response to incident reports and lack of teacher support by administrators and principals.
Hence, although there are plans in the works through Dr. Alonso’s “Great Kids, Great Schools” initiative, which shifts a substantial portion of funds and authority to the schools, urgent measures to protect teachers inside the classroom is perceived as not a priority.
This included the horrendous practice of underreporting incidents by principals who fear that their school would be placed on the “danger list” which results in state monitoring and the threat of being taken over by the state.
There were many who were impressed by Dr. Alonso’s initiatives and infrastructure changes, as well as his open door policy to teachers which include confidential communications. Others say, however, there were still too many gaps in policy and unsatisfactory answers, especially with respect to teacher safety within the classroom.
Even more alarming was Dr. Alonso’s non-answer to the question of whether teachers have the right to defend themselves, the most immediate concern on teachers’ minds. Instead, he spoke about the need to create systems that would create an environment in which such incidents would be deterred.
Hence, although there are plans in the works through Dr. Alonso’s “Great Kids, Great Schools” initiative, which shifts a substantial portion of funds and authority to the schools, urgent measures to protect teachers inside the classroom is unfortunately perceived as not a priority.
Many teachers advocate for walkie-talkies or emergency phones installed in each classroom so they can call for security immediately should an incident erupt. Scanners, metal detectors and surveillance cameras have been installed in a few schools but not citywide.
Further, the criticism does not end with the BCPSS central office. Many point to the lack of leadership within the Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU) under the direction of President Marietta English. Some say that the BTU has focused more on teachers’ salaries and pensions than on safety issues and student advocacy.
For example, the BTU has appeared to have pulled back from advocating alongside the Baltimore Algebra Project (BAP) for the approximately $1.1 billion worth of funds under the Thornton Law that the State of Maryland has owed the BCPSS for over ten years.
In the last few years, BAP has taken up the sole leadership position to advocate for this funding, with their latest direct action taking place last February in Annapolis where a handful of protestors were detained.
This is why there has been a movement to change leadership at the BTU elections on May 14th, in particular the election of longtime educator and activist Sharon Blake - as president - along with those on her ticket. She calls her ticket “The Blake Slate.”
But perhaps the largest issue of this school year has been the appointed BCPSS school board, which many point to as the biggest culprit. School board members are not appointed full time, and it is reported that none have children in the BCPSS, which makes some conclude they have no immediate stake in the system.
Subsequently, there has been a massive call for a partially elected school board which would foster more accountability amongst the board -particularly in regards to school safety issues.
In the Maryland General Assembly’s legislative session that just ended, a bill was put on the floor to create such a school board. That bill was not passed, but will be reintroduced in the next session.
During the legislative end session report hosed by the Baltimore Chapter of the NAACP on Tuesday, April 22nd, one legislator pointed out that again, were it not for the lack of a BTU presence during the hearings, the bill would not have died on the floor.
There is a hope from legislators that with a new BTU leadership, there will be a large contingency that will be present when the bill is reintroduced in January.
With the warming temperatures and “spring fever” on the horizon, the already volatile situation in the BCPSS could escalate, causing increased violence within the classrooms, with possibly even deadlier consequences.
In fact, one teacher at Frederick Douglass High School, where a student was recently stabbed, predicted that a “Columbine” (referring to the 1999 massacre in Littleton, Colorado) could occur before the end of this school term. Many are hoping proactive measures will be enacted quickly so that tragedy will never be repeated.