Baltimore city schools are operating under a new code of conduct this year and not everyone is happy with it. One major change that has some parents, educators and union officials upset involves weapons.
Under the revised code, students caught with weapons such as knives, box cutters or pepper spray will no longer be automatically suspended. That’s a big change from the old code, which required the automatic suspension or expulsion of students for firearms and all other weapons, including toy guns or butter knives.
Parent Troy Williams calls the change “crazy.” “I think they oughta change the rule back,” Williams said as he waited to pick up his 11-year-old daughter at Midtown Academy Elementary/Middle School.
Williams feels his daughter is safe at her school, but is concerned that the policy change may pose a problem at high schools and in bullying cases. “Suppose one of them kids [that are] getting bullied [has] a knife on them and all of a sudden act out. And they gonna stab somebody up, so you’re basically giving them permission to carry a weapon around,” Williams said.
The new code does not give students permission to carry weapons, but with the exception of firearms, it requires school officials to use measures such as community services, loss of privileges or in-school suspension first. Nicole Sullivan, whose 13-year-old daughter attends Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School, disagrees. She says students carrying weapons “need to be suspended because they shouldn’t bring this stuff to school.”
She worries that some students might be bold about carrying formerly banned items because they won’t be automatically suspended or expelled. “I don’t think there’s any danger to my child, cause I know my child is not into that kind of stuff, but it’s other kids that’s bringing it into the school,” she said.
Parents are not the only ones questioning the new code. James Gittings, president of the principal’s union doesn’t like it one bit. “I strongly disagree with the new policy,” Gittings said. “It is very ambiguous; what can be done and the processes that principals would have to go through to suspend a child. The principal [is] the guiding force of a school and should have the right to make that decision [whether] a child is suspended or not.”
District officials point out that principals are given flexibility. For example, Audrey Marshall, who was suspended last year after she sprayed mace on another student, might not be under the new rules. Because Marshall said she “felt like I was being bullied” and was physically and verbally attacked by that student on numerous occasions, she could be offered mediation, counseling, or other support before facing suspension under the new rules.
But Gittings and Baltimore Teacher’s Union President Marietta English say their representatives on the committee that modified the code did not recommend these changes. English wants the code revisited. “There needs to be more input and not just have a meeting but listen to what people in the field are saying and include that in the policy because when you just throw something out there, it’s not good and no one is feeling good about it,” English said.
She also said the revised code on weapons has the potential of disrupting teacher’s classrooms. In addition, she pointed out inconsistencies in areas of the new policy, such as the district’s dress code for students. “The code says students can’t wear hoop earrings, for example, and I see that in schools all the time,” English said. “Students know what they can get away with and if one can, then, Johnny’s going to try it, so it will become a problem. If you know you will be suspended for a behavior, you will not do that behavior.”
English plans to take her concerns to the school board. The revised code did not need the board’s approval, but district officials were required to get input from parents, staff and students, something they did not do. School board president Shanaysha Sauls says it’s, “unfortunate the way things played out.”
“It’s been acknowledged,” Sauls said. “It’s been understood and the board will be looking closely at how it plays out in terms of school safety, which is what it is all about.”
School board vice chair David Stone says he sees no harm done by the changes because all punishment options are still available. “We’re not going to micro-manage the process,” Stone said referring to the public input school officials will have to solicit. “We want appropriate changes with flexibility for school leaders and safety for students.”
Stone described the revised code as a common sense attempt to move away from a zero tolerance policy on weapons, something he says no one likes.