School police officers and students square off in a TRNN debate over the role of cops in education in the wake of a beating of a student caught on video that has lead to criminal charges
STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: Hello. My name is Stephen Janis and I’m a reporter for the Real News Network in Baltimore. It was another video depicting alleged police misconduct that throws Baltimore into the national spotlight, but this time it was a school cop caught in the crosshairs of a camera. This video of school police officer Anthony Spence striking and then kicking a yet-to-be-named student made headlines around the world, and now Spence is facing criminal charges of assault and child abuse. But this latest incident has also raised questions about the role of cops in schools, particularly in Baltimore where the educational system has been accused of lackluster results and a failure to provide a learning environment, what some call a school to prison pipeline, which brings us [to] the question of just what role, if any, should police play in schools at all. To help us debate this question are not just advisers or experts, but officers who work in city schools and the students they purport to serve. Sargent Clyde Boatwright is a police school veteran who now serves as president of the department’s unit. He is joined by Sargent Donovan Brooks. Representing the students are activists with the Baltimore Algebra Project, [NAME] and Darius Hill. Thank you all for joining us. I appreciate it. JANIS: So I want to start with school police. You know, the police union in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray defended the officers’ actions and defended them in court. Do you defend what Officer Spence did in that school, and, you know, will you stand behind him when he goes to court? CLYDE BOATWRIGHT: Well, just based on the fact that that investigation is still ongoing by the state’s attorney’s office, I know they said once charges were brought that the investigation continues. We from the FOP do not comment on open investigations. We let the administrative process, and also the criminal proceedings in this case, take its course before we, you know, actually come out with a formal position on that. JANIS: Well Sgt. Brooks, from your perspective as a police officer who works in schools. You saw the video. How would you defend that video, what happened? Can you defend it? DONOVAN BROOKS: Well, again, as Sgt. Boatwright said, when the information was turned over to the state’s attorney’s office and the decision was made to move forward with the investigation, from the position that we have in the Fraternal Order of Police we allow that to move forward before we render any decisions. JANIS: Well let me ask you this both, students, you’ve seen the video, right? Is their answer satisfactory to you in terms of what they’re saying about what happened, as students? [SPEAKER 1]: Well, I believe that officers, they shouldn’t put their hands on students unless they feel that their life was in danger. I don’t know what actually happened before, prior to the actual officer hitting, I’m not sure. I can’t speak on that. But I believe if the guy, if the student was threatening the officer or, like, physically trying to hurt the officer then precautions must be taking place, but to be honest I don’t know what happened so I really don’t think he should have just hit him and kicked him. JANIS: Well let me ask you a question. As a student, you know, you’ve been in school, you’re a senior. Has stuff like this happened before? Have you seen police officers get physical with students in schools? [SPEAKER 1]: Well I personally had an experience, an encounter with one of the officers at my school. So I go to Dumbarton. There was this incident that happened in my school, and it seemed like certain relationships with officers and students, they must have a relationship together in order for the outcome of certain situations to be differently, because I did the same incident as another student and the officer, since I built a relationship with the officer, he didn’t treat me as much as he did another student. So I had, me and this student had started a food fight in the classroom, in the lunch area one time, and the officer came to me, and you know, he just talked to me, calmed me down and just set me in the office. But another student started a food fight and he, you know, physically slammed him on the table and, like, but his knee in his back, put him into handcuffs and all of that stuff. He was just overaggressive with certain people, so I believe that building a relationship with certain students depends on the result of the outcome of what’s going to happen. JANIS: Okay. Just getting back to what he was saying. You know, these are complex situations, you know. What is it that the public doesn’t see about policing in schools that, you know, might make some of these things more understandable or put it into context that the public needs to know. I mean, what is it we don’t see that goes behind closed doors? BOATWRIGHT: You know, what I will say is, it’s been my experience working in schools and, you know, from my position as the president of the police union that our officers build outstanding relationships with students. Not only are we coaches and mentors and, you know, we are actually in some cases the mother or father that some students don’t have. In some cases they do have it, but they have it at the schoolhouse. They come to us with, you know, a myriad of different situations on a daily basis. I mean, you know, our kids, you know, go through a lot of things, whether they are on their way to school and in some cases in their neighborhoods. You know, we look at Baltimore, the reality of our city. We have a lot of vacant homes. We have a high crime rate, and our kids come to school to escape from those things when they come inside of our schoolhouse. And when they come to escape they know that they have us there as the protector and a person they can come to if they feel a need. JANIS: Darius, what’s your perception? You know, you’ve graduated now and you’ve been in school a long time. Do you feel like you had a productive relationship with the school police, or is this something, is this incident, you know, representative of a problem that needs to be solved in terms of the way police operate in schools? DARIUS HILL: From my experience at my high school, I went to Mergenthaler, my school police were fine. It was, like, when I went up other schools they were overaggressive. Like, if you didn’t belong in that area it was a problem. You would just be going to meet your friends. Y’all could be [to] his house after school. Y’all could be chilling and they’d be overaggressive, they got [inaud.] you up. All that unnecessary– JANIS: –So you’ve been in an experience where they’ve physically put their hands on you in situations? Is that what you’re– HILL: –I haven’t, but I’ve been around it. JANIS: You’ve been around it, you’ve seen it. So let me ask you this question. You know, it was a big controversy two years ago about having guns, officers armed when they go into school. You see this video. How can you make the justification to parents that we should have guns or we should be armed if school police officers are getting that physical with students? BOATWRIGHT: Well, [crosstalk] you know, we– BROOKS: [interposing] Yeah, you take it. BOATWRIGHT: You know, we look at the trends nationally with these mass shootings. You know, I was quoted in local newspapers as making the statement that we are one heartbeat away from our town becoming the next Newtown, and that’s a true statement. JANIS: I mean, but don’t you think that’s a little incendiary given that we’re trying to talk rationally and that, you know, that is one of the worst things that has ever happened in this country. To use that as sort of a rational basis for being armed, do you think that’s going a little to far? BOATWRIGHT: And the citizens, the residents of San Bernardino county, from the health department, went to work and had a company party– JANIS: –But again– BOATWRIGHT: –And they didn’t think that San Bernardino [crosstalk] [inaud.] that it would tap on their door either. JANIS: [interposing]–I mean, I understand. I totally take your point. But I mean, isn’t there more of a rational argument than just saying, like, the fear of some horrible, tragic event is the only reason you need guns? BOATWRIGHT: No. That’s not because, it’s not just for the schoolhouse. JANIS: Right. BOATWRIGHT: Our responsibility extends to the neighborhoods. Our schools are walk-up schools. What do I mean by walkup schools? They are in the heart of different neighborhoods, and then when we have, like we talked about the statistics about the lockdown situations. When we have a lockdown, if an officer is unarmed he has to go to retrieve a weapon, and that has nothing to do with the schoolhouse. We’re talking about something that happens in the neighborhood, where someone discharges a firearm, somebody’s armed, and it has happened multiple times in and around the immediate area of our schools, where people in the neighborhood have engaged themselves in very dangerous behavior that put our schools at risk. And to have our officers have to go somewhere to a secure location to retrieve a weapon when in some cases the suspects want to get away from that and the schoolhouse, they feel as though it’s a safe house as well. I could come in and blend in, or I can come in and hide in one of those many rooms, and, you know, our officers need to be there to protect the staff and students of the schools. JANIS: [NAME], a lot of the statistics show that if you have school police students are more likely to get arrested, and it creates what some people call school to prison pipeline. Do you think that’s a fact, that having school police actually makes students, in some senses criminalizes the children who are in schools? [SPEAKER 1]: Yes, because school kind of [reminds] me of jail. You know, we all have uniforms. We all have to go to lunch at a certain time. They also have officers with guns, handcuffs and all that stuff, so when students see the police with guns they automatically assume that they know they’re going to be up to something. So I believe that students, I mean police officers shouldn’t have guns because they have to go through certain training during their police camp, so they should know how to, you know, physically handle a situation without having a gun on their side. Now the guns should be in the facility but shouldn’t be in the actual school building. JANIS: Well, and let me turn that question over to you. There’s studies, you know, that show that students are more likely to be arrested if there’s a police officer in the school or if the school has a school resource officer, and of course we all know that the criminal justice system is not really the place we want our children to be, so how do you answer that? BOATWRIGHT: You know, statistics are what they are. And I’m, you know, I’m not, you know, I don’t have an actual stat in front of me. However, I will say this. It’s our job, as police officers that are policing the school, to just maintain a safe learning environment for students. That’s our main focus. I don’t, you know, I haven’t met an officer that wakes up in the morning and said, I want to go lock as many kids up as I can, because that doesn’t happen, and if that’s their motive then they need to go police somewhere else. We don’t support that. That’s not our mission statement. That’s not the goal of our organization, and speaking from our officers, I get the calls every day from our officers that call the union hall to say, hey, we had a good, productive day. Everything was quiet, just wanted to let you know. Crime is good. No crime in our schools, no crime in our neighborhood. And those calls are the ones that you want to get, as opposed to, something has happened and we all need to go to that location and be there. JANIS: Well, did you have something to add to that? Because you’re writing down, are you– [SPEAKER]: –I’m just– JANIS: –Oh, okay. Well let me turn it around a little bit, and you, both of you, when I was an investigative reporter at another media outlet I did an investigation where we found that hundreds of knives were being brought into school and that they were being confiscated from students. The fact that, and you know, there were other weapons, does that, you know, in a sense, give police a justification to be more aggressive in schools? And how do you, how can you not have police if people are bringing knives into schools, or other types of weapons? HILL: I mean, the community’s really unsafe right now. Obviously above what it should be. I mean, we is just out here trying to protect ourselves, but a gun can really do more damage than a knife, especially in the wrong person’s hands. JANIS: Why do you think people bring them into school? I mean, I had documented like, and look, I’m not saying that this justifies anything, but why do you think kids were bringing them into school at such a large amount? HILL: I mean, they could bring them into school because at the same time you’ve got to think, like, police not going to be with you everywhere you go. Some people got to take shortcuts home. Some people got to be in the house by four. [SPEAKER 1]: So, the travel from home to school, the police are not with you. So it can be the case that some students may be bullied, they may become bullied, so then bullying plays a huge role into other students bringing in weapons and stuff because they fear for their life just by the students themselves. So they don’t have the police around, they’ll be like, oh, well, I’m [going to] carry some mace, or I’m [going to] carry a knife because I fear for my life to that bully over there, so it’s like bullying plays a big role in other students bringing in knives as well. JANIS: Is this what you’ve seen from your experience? And why does the school police limit at the boundary of the school property itself? I mean, is that a problem that you’ve seen, that bullying and sort of conflicts outside of school become, come into the school and create a lot of this [crosstalk] atmosphere? BOATWRIGHT: [interposing] Yeah. It’s been a history that, you know, issues that originate in the neighborhood become school issues and schoolhouse issues and, you know, our officers welcome that task. They welcome that task to mediate those things and, you know, just like the young man just said earlier, when you go to a different school the officers doesn’t know your intent or the reason that you’re there. And if our officers, you know, I know for a fact when I was a school-based officer I observed people that were just trying to walk home with certain people and if I seen them every day I developed a relationship with them to understand, and they know the boundaries. They know that you can come and wait across the street because that’s city property, but you can’t come on the school grounds because you’re not a student. Because we will become responsible for your safety, and if you’re just walking home with another student that’s fine. And it’s all about engaging. You know, our officers go out and engage people that are quote-unquote trespassers or not, that don’t belong into the schools, and when you’re engaged with that dialogue you understand what the motive there, if they is just there to walk home from school that’s fine.
JANIS: Well, as we reported I also covered a lot of fights, pretty serious fights in schools, and if we have school police officers in the school why do these fights keep occurring? And why can’t police, if they are, if you are there for this purpose why can’t you mitigate some of that violence? BROOKS: We do. BOATWRIGHT: –Yeah– JANIS: [inaud.] I’m sorry, go ahead. I [apologize], I’ve been– BROOKS: I think one of the things that we, one of the areas that we get into is the fact that you really can’t measure prevention, okay? So if you come in and, you know, you report on two major fights, all right? How do I give you the data to report on six fights that never occurred because of human intelligence that was brought through the police officer in the building, the police officer making proper notifications, engaging parents, administrators and the students who are involved, alright? And bringing that situation to a close before it escalates into a fight? That’s one of the areas that’s very difficult for us to really present to the public, because it’s just very difficult to measure prevention, but I know that we are involved in a great deal of prevention within the Baltimore City public schools. The young man spoke about traveling to and from school. You asked a question about areas, communities around the school. Our schools are a microcosm of the things that take place in our communities, okay? So you have gangs in the communities, you have gangs that try to infiltrate the school. You have drugs in the communities, drugs make their way into the schools. As a reporter, you know that. We have violence in the communities. It’s made its way into our schools. We have homicides, and unfortunately it has made its way into our schools. We are there to do the best we can to prevent these types of things from happening. Now, when we see that there is a need, based on information that you have provided, information that we gather on our own, that there is a need for us to adjust to things that we do, how we deliver our services, then we have to make those adjustments, and as leaders within the community and within the police department we have a responsibility to make those adjustments. And I can tell you that the stakeholders, the principals, the administrators, many parents and a large number of students, all right, have opposed school police being taken out of schools. You know, when you’re at, when you’re at ground zero, so to speak, where education takes place, where you have, where you’re dealing with a climate, and I’m not necessarily saying a bad climate. Listen, Montgomery County schools has police resource officers. Baltimore County schools – JANIS:–That’s true.– BROOKS: –has resource, have resource officers. These officers don’t check their guns at the door, and they do not experience nearly the level of violence in the communities that surround their schools that we are experiencing in Baltimore City. And so I say all these things to say that where we need to make a change and adjustments we have to take ownership, but we have to make those changes and adjustments. A lot of our students who come to school, when they leave school they immediately go into a survival mode for a multitude of reasons. That survival mode causes several things It causes retention of the information that they may have received that day. It may distract them from accomplishing things that they need to do at home that are educationally based. And then they stay in that survival mode. Many of them, not all, but many of them stay in that survival mode until they walk back through the doors of the school. JANIS: But when you see the video all you can say is that they’re, experience the same thing from the school police that [crosstalk] they’re experiencing– BROOKS: [interposing]–That is not all that, I would submit to you that is not all that you can say. What you can say is that you saw a video. That’s what you can say, okay. And I would no more allow one video about any situation, all right? I wouldn’t allow a video about a news reporter who committed some act that may not be consistent with what we’ve seen from all news reporters define every news reporter. JANIS: But are you saying there’s a context and what that video, what he did was justified? BROOKS: I’m not saying that it was justified. I’m saying to you that I would no more view any action or any behavior– JANIS: –I see what you’re saying. BROOKS: You know what I’m saying? JANIS: That’s reasonable. BROOKS: That is an anomaly. Here’s why I’m saying it’s an anomaly. Unless you tell me that you’re seeing videos like that on a consistent basis, all right? If the students are telling me that they see videos like that on a consistent basis then I would say that, if the news is reporting videos like that on a consistent basis then I would say that that’s a norm. But I would say that this is an exception. I would say that this is an anomaly. JANIS: Let me turn to the students. Is that what you saw, that video, was that anomalous behavior? Was that unusual behavior, or was that something you see, I mean I’ve asked you this before, but do you agree that that behavior was something that was very, you know, unusual? [SPEAKER 1]: Not at all. That’s not unusual. We see it in different [inaud.] [crosstalk] it may not be– JANIS [interposing]–With school police officers?– [SPEAKER 1]: Right. It may not be caught on film. Every incident may not be caught on film but there are incidents in schools where police are abusing a child or they’re doing something with the children, it’s just not exposed as much as that one was. JANIS: So how do you answer that? BROOKS: I would disagree. JANIS: You’d disagree? BROOKS: Yeah, I would disagree. BOATWRIGHT: And, you know, from the perspective of the Fraternal Order of Police and as leaders within our police department, if that’s going on we invite members of the public or students to reach out. Reach out to us and say, this is what I saw, this needs to be investigated, and we will make sure that it gets to the, in the proper hands. JANIS: Do you feel, as a student, that if you witness something that if you go to the school police that they’ll take it seriously if you say, hey, officer so and so hit me and I’m upset about it. Do you feel like you have a place to go with that complaint where you won’t have to worry about retribution or even being taken seriously? [SPEAKER 1]: Well, I believe you can take it to them but it all depends on them. Depending on the relationship with the head of the officer and the officer that committed the abuse or whatever, that [inaud.] [would] determine the outcome. To be honest with you, I think if I [would] come to them and say an officer hit me, they might, they may listen to it, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to do anything about it. There are situations where someone had reported something to the principal. The principal told the head of the officer one time and then the officer came back the next day like nothing happened. He suffered no consequences or anything. JANIS: Well, I wanted to ask this question to both of you, and then I’ll turn it over to you. What future, how do you, given the evidence, you know, that police in school does lead to more criminalization and what you see, but of course you, the officers say that they’re protecting you. What role do you want to see school police, if any, play in your education going forward? [SPEAKER 1]: What role? Hill: Could you repeat that? JANIS: Yeah. What role, if any, do you think we need police in schools? Do you think it’s time to rethink that idea? [SPEAKER 1]: So, we don’t have problems with police in being in the schools. Our problem is just, you know, no guns in schools. Police, I think they’re meant, we need police in the schools just for our protection and our safety, but the guns put a fear in the students like, oh, we don’t know, any time they can just pull the trigger, no matter what the case may be, and bullets don’t have no name so they can accidentally shoot an innocent person if they’re trying to target someone else. JANIS: Darius, what do you think? I mean, do you think we still need to have police officers in schools, and if so what role? HILL: I mean, I think we do, though. Police in schools, yeah. I think that the gun in a school is what kind of gets me a little bit. Because like I said earlier, a gun in the wrong person’s hands contains a life. JANIS: So Sgt. Boatwright, given some of the concerns you’ve heard and that the video, you know, does depict something that people have agreed is disturbing, what do you say to, you know, parents and students who have concerns about police’ in school and, going forward, what you’re going to do to sort of assuage that concern? BOATWRIGHT: Well, in 1991 the Maryland state legislature felt as though that security in Baltimore City schools needed to be elevated to police. That was done by the Maryland General Assembly. And with that, I mean, if you look back at the history of our department, in 1967 the school safety division was started in Baltimore City in 1967. But moving forward our schools had to change along with the times of our city, so what I would submit to the parents and students, an unarmed police officer is no different than a security officer, and security officers slash hall monitors have their role. That’s not a shot at them. They have their role. But when you say police, police have to be the keeper of the peace and the one that will step in between you and danger, and you can’t step in between danger and a student or danger and a staff member without having the proper tools to equip yourself to do the job. JANIS: So [inaud.], what do you say to students or parents who are concerned, who see this violence on behalf of a school police officer and say we don’t want police in the schools? BROOKS: So as a parent of students who have graduated from Baltimore City public schools, as a parent who still has two children in public schools, I understand what the concerns are. I also understand that there have been a number of people, and I would, I’m going to say a small number of people, who have created this boogieman effect about a school police officer being armed. Listen, my teenage son goes to the mall with his friends. He goes to the Towson mall. There’s never any less than five or six police officers in that mall who are armed when my son, when my teenaged son goes to hang out in the mall. My son has never come home and told me, you know, Dad, I really couldn’t shop and I really couldn’t focus on buying that T-shirt that I wanted because there was a police officer in the mall and that officer was armed, and somehow that just totally took my mind away from the task at hand, which was to have a good time with my friends and shop. He goes to the movie theater, all right? The movie theaters that he attends, there are armed police officers in the movie theater. Now he’s just going there to get a box of popcorn and enjoy a movie. Never has he come home and said to me, Dad, I really couldn’t enjoy the movie because all I continued to think about was that cop in the lobby that had that gun on him, and I really couldn’t. So I think what we have to do is we have to put things in perspective. We have to identify an agenda, all right? And we have to match those things and we have to contrast those things with good, prudent decisions, and it’s prudent to continue to protect the students of Baltimore City public schools and I will submit to you, in closing, that the students of Baltimore City deserve no less protection than the students in the other 24 school systems around the state of Maryland. JANIS: [inaud.] We have to wrap up. [NAME], I want to give you last word. Anything you want to say in response to what the officer said? [SPEAKER 1]: I just wanted to say you can not compare, you know, your life outside of school to your life in the school. In the school police have a certain role, and the function of school police does not need a gun. They need, now the function of outside, of regular police, of course they need a gun because there’s potential danger anywhere you go. The mall there’s danger, the movies there’s danger, but in school I don’t think they need the gun. JANIS: Okay. Well listen, I really appreciate this discussion. It’s been very enlightening, and I appreciate you sharing your insights. okay. Thank you, and hopefully [inaud.] be back soon. My name is Stephen Janis and I’m a reporter for the Real News Network in Baltimore.