School Climate & Safety

Baltimore School Cops, Chief Put on Leave After Teen Kicked, Slapped on Video

By Evie Blad — March 02, 2016 3 min read
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Updated with details of criminal investigation and disagreement over whether boy in the video is a student at the school.

Officials in the Baltimore City school system placed the district’s in-house police chief and two school police officers on leave Wednesday after a video emerged of the officer kicking, slapping, and swearing at a teen boy this week.

The school police department, Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office and the Baltimore Police Department are conducting a criminal investigation of the incident, school officials told the Baltimore Sun.

Racial justice and youth advocacy groups quickly responded to the cell phone video, which was filmed outside of REACH Partnership School in East Baltimore Tuesday, calling the incident part of a greater pattern of inappropriate use of force against students of color in public schools. Both the officer who hit the boy in the video and the boy are black.

“What we need are school cultures that are nurturing and supportive, that are not brutal and that are not tearing down our young people,” Thena Robinson Mock, project director of the Advancement Project’s Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track.

The Baltimore Sun reported Wednesday afternoon that school police say the boy and another male youth, who were identified as “outside intruders” before the incident, are not students at REACH, but an attorney for the 16-year-old boy who was hit by the officer says he does attend the school. The district did not name specific reasons why it placed School Police Chief Marshall Goodwin on leave. School officials are “vigorously” investigating the situation, a district representative told the Baltimore Sun. From the Sun:

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on Wednesday morning also described the scene in the video as 'appalling,' and said the officer's actions could further harm the relationship between the community and the police. 'Anytime there is a law enforcement officer with that level of authority that seems to be abusing that authority, it impacts all of us across the country,' she said. 'It certainly is not helpful as we work to build bridges of trust to see that level of mistreatment.' "

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Baltimore City Police Department following the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man whose death in police custody sparked unrest in the city last year, but the school police department is a separate agency. In a September 2015 letter, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund asked the federal agency to expand its investigation to include the school police department.

“Data received by LDF from Baltimore City Public Schools, through a public information act request, show that school police officers have been accused of misconduct and excessive use-of-force on numerous occasions,” that letter said. “For example, in 2014, there were eight misconduct complaints, of which five were sustained.”

The letter notes that Baltimore students have been arrested for “minor infractions” and that school police officers have authority throughout the city.

As I wrote after a video of a violent school arrest of a South Carolina student went viral last year, civil rights organizations say incidents of excessive force and unnecessary arrests by school police are more common than many people realize. Such organizations have sought to use high-profile incidents to discuss their concerns about police in schools. Unclear boundaries between routine school discipline and law enforcement create concerns, particularly for students of color, they said.

While black students made up 16 percent of U.S. public school enrollment during the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which federal data are available, they represented 27 percent of those referred to law enforcement by schools and 31 percent of those who were subject to school-related arrests.

Advocacy groups have suggested a variety of policy proposals to address the disparity. Among those proposals:

  • School districts should carefully word agreements with school police to define expectations for how they interact with students;
  • States should rein in laws that give school-based officers broad authority to arrest students for vague infractions like “disturbing a school”; and
  • Schools should reduce the number of officers in their hallways and replace discipline practices like suspensions with restorative justice.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.