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Downplays and Upticks: Baltimore County’s Violence and the Stories the Data Tells
Rife with videos of students in fisticuffs, social media has captured a much different story on school violence than the one told by Baltimore County’s overall declining school suspension numbers.
Even teachers are ringing the alarms. “In Baltimore County, we have teachers who have been hit, punched, kicked and bitten by students,” said Abbey Beytin, president of Baltimore County Schools’ Teachers Association, of the system’s uptick in violence. Stating in a 2016 newsletter, Beytin continued: “We even have pregnant teachers who have been threatened verbally by students with ‘having their stomachs cut with a knife.’ We have teachers who have been sent to the doctor, or even worse, to the hospital, because of out of control student behaviors. How much longer are we going to ignore these issues?”
While the school system’s suspensions have plummeted over the last five years, parents and onlookers of victims – aghast – have recently relied on Facebook and YouTube for reporting incidents via photos and videos, in hopes of directing attention to apparent dangers. Yet few media outlets picked up on the stories; and elected leaders have remained silent. Until now.
In May, Fox 45 uncovered a disturbing trend: the number of weapons showing up on Baltimore County School property is actually on the rise. Counting occurrences at just five of the system’s schools over the last five years, 171 weapons incidents have been reported.
Included in the sample count: Deep Creek Middle School and Chesapeake, Franklin, Lansdowne and Milford Mill Academy high schools.
State Delegate Pat McDonough took notice of the station’s story and investigated, discovering that the school system is possibly also in violation of the Maryland State Department of Education’s regulations, as well as state and federal law.
Fox 45’s Project Baltimore had discovered that, despite the state’s decrease in weapon related incidents, Baltimore County Public Schools had shown a 26% increase, with “certain individual schools seeing an astounding 500 percent spike,” in just the 2015-2016 school-year alone.
The station also revealed that the system experienced a 35% increase in weapons related occurrences in the last five years, overall.
Lead investigator, Chris Papst, of Fox 45’s Project Baltimore requested from Baltimore County the number and type of firearms confiscated by the school system since 2012.
The system denied his Open Records Request, citing the lack of a database containing the requested information on firearms.
In response to Papst’s reporting on the uptick in weapons incidents, Delegate McDonough immediately sought clarification from the Office of Maryland’s Attorney General and the Maryland State Department of Education. The Delegate asked for the pertinent laws that would require the reporting of violence and weapons incidents – specifically firearms – in Maryland’s public schools.
The Attorney General’s Deputy Council, Kathryn Rowe, responded by citing federal and state law, as well as the state’s corresponding school system regulations (COMAR) in this June 30th letter. Rowe’s response to Delegate McDonough illuminated the school district’s possible violation on three levels: federal and state, while also potentially bypassing regulations set forth by the Maryland State Department of Education for local school districts.
The Attorney General’s office confirmed that the federal Gun Free Schools Act, the Maryland State Department of Education and state law require that school districts comply with collecting firearm data. School districts “seeking a share of federal funds received by the State to report on each expulsion and describe the circumstances of each expulsion, including the name of the school concerned, the number of students expelled from each school, and the type of firearms involved.”
The Post reached out to the Maryland Attorney General’s Office for comment and was told to address questions to Baltimore County’s school system and the Maryland State Department of Education.
Baltimore County Public School’s Chief Communications Officer, Mychael Dickerson, directed the Post’s inquiry to the system’s Public Information Officer’s page. No subsequent comment has been received.
In June, Delegate McDonough raised several questions with the Maryland Department of Education (MSDE) on policies and procedures for schools’ reporting of incidents and data collection. Asking specifically for the policies school districts are required to follow when a firearm is involved, a MSDE representative wrote about adherence to the federal Gun Free Schools Act and Maryland’s Department of Education’s regulations (COMAR). “The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) collects data on the categories of weapons for which a student is suspended or expelled. If the weapon is a firearm, the Gun Free School Act requires the specific type of firearm,” the representative stated.
As recently reported by the Post, the Maryland State Department of Education is in alignment with the previous White House Administration’s well-intentioned ReThink Discipline initiative.
Together, the Departments of Education and Justice focused on removing zero-tolerance discipline policies from schools across the country, offering guidelines for the training and support of all school personnel – including teachers, principals, support staff, and school-based law enforcement officers.
Former Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, and Department of Justice Attorney General, Eric Holder, introduced the initiative as a way to close the racial discipline gap between black and white students.
The Office of Civil Rights had found that for every one white student, four black students are suspended or expelled every year, an alarming rate considering that African American’s make up only 16% of America’s student population.
According to Delegate McDonough, Duncan and Holder put through what is called a “ministerial guideline,” and that official laws have supremacy over such guidance. “Their ministerial guidelines – if they violate state and federal law – mean nothing,” the Delegate said. “Are we applying (the initiative) in such fashion that we are causing harm to other students?”
Delegate McDonough agrees that minor offences involving young students are overly subject to penalty. Yet he believes that the Obama Administration’s initiative was “too broad,” and that County Executive Kevin Kamanetz, and former Baltimore County School Superintendent, Dallas Dance, were “over-zealous in implementing those guidelines.”
“It’s like shooting a flea with an elephant gun,” he said. “It is not benefiting students, and that could have dire consequences.”
In 2010, The Maryland State Department of Education applied for – and received – a White House Race to the Top (RTTT) grant. One year later, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice added the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, tying states’ eligibility to receive the RTTT grant money to an additional qualifier: that participating schools study and proactively change the ratio associated with suspension rates between black and white students.
Under the leadership of current Maryland State Schools Superintendent, Dr. Karen Salmon, the state is currently in phase two of a three-phase implementation process to reduce and ultimately eliminate racially disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates. And, by the 2019-2020 school year, the expectation is that each Maryland school district completely eliminate the race and disability discipline disparities, thus completing the mission of Rethink Discipline.
During the leadership of Superintendent Dance, Baltimore County lowered its suspension and expulsion rate to its lowest overall percentage (relative to student body), in the system’s recorded history: dropping 40% from the previous year for black students, and a 50% drop for white. (9,700 to 5,897 and 4,346 to 2,171, respectively). That first reduction occurred in Dance’s first year on the job. Despite the significant decline, the discipline gap between black and white students actually widened under Dance’s leadership.
In 2014, suspensions for both black and white students dipped by another 10%, yet overall suspension and expulsion numbers remained relatively steady under Dance’s tenure.
All along, a dangerous trend had been quietly brewing in the system’s schools: weapons incidents. This trend was building, all while the system had allegedly failed to capture mandatory firearm data, required by three governing bodies.
Seeking a response in writing, Delegate McDonough will be sending a certified letter to Baltimore County’s new interim school superintendent, Verletta White, asking about what he states are law violations with regard to the firearms issue. The lawmaker stated that if White does not respond, he will be asking for Maryland’s State Prosecutor and the State’s Department of Education to intervene.
White, who has been on the job for less than one week, will be required to answer for the alleged violations which would have occurred during previous Superintendent Dallas Dance’s 2012-2017 tenure.
Reflecting on her first week on the job in an email to the Board of Education, White stated last week that literacy and discipline are her top priorities.
McDonough told the Post: “You cannot fix the problem, if we don’t know the details. We know that they are in violation of the law, and we believe that violence in our schools is being covered up.”
Delegate McDonough, a Republican, will be running for Baltimore County Executive in the 2018 election and has been a Member of the House since 2003, having first served a term from 1979 to 1983 as a conservative Democrat in Baltimore City.