Violence Again Takes Center Stage in City Schools

Violence Again Takes Center Stage in City Schools

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 the story was even profiled on the “The Today Show,” during 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, Mayor Sheila Dixon joined Dr. Andreas Alonso in a forum called “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. Of the problems addressed was 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 a possible takeover of their school. There were many who were impressed by Dr. Alonso’s initiatives and infrastructure changes, as well as his open-door policy to teachers, which includes confidential communications. Others, however, say that there were still too many gaps in policy and unsatisfactory answers, especially in regards to teacher safety within the classroom. Perhaps most 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. 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, measures to protect teachers inside the classroom are not perceived as urgent. Many teachers advocate for walkie talkies or emergency phones installed in each classroom so they can immediately call for security should an incident erupt. Scanners, metal detectors, and surveillance cameras have been installed in a few schools, but not citywide. But 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 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 funding, 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. At the head of this movement is long-time educator and activist Sharon Blake, candidate for BTU president, along with those on her ticket, which she calls “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 for problems in city schools. The school board is currently made up of appointed part-time members, and it is reported that none have children in the BCPSS, which means they have no immediate stake in the system. To address this perceived problem, there has been a massive call for a partially elected school board, which would foster accountability amongst the board, particularly in regard 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 re-introduced in the next session. During the legislative end session report hosted 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 new BTU leadership there will be a large contingency present when the bill is re-introduced in January. With the warming temperatures on the horizon, the already volatile situation in the BCPSS could escalate, causing increased violence within the classrooms, possibly with deadly consequences. Many are hoping proactive measures will be enacted quickly so that such a tragedy will never occur.