Public schools are opening across the state Tuesday.
The academic year begins with Baltimore County officials grappling with how to keep the district’s roughly 114,000 students safe.
Lisa Norrington is a teacher at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in Dundalk. She’s been there 25 years and has been hurt several times breaking up fights. Most recently three years ago, when she and another teacher tried to separate two ninth grade girls.
“It’s a real physical threat when you’re breaking up high schoolers,” Norrington said.
School board member Ann Miller calls violence in schools, in the county and nationwide, an epidemic. Miller said it is a far greater menace than external threats, like school shootings.
“There is a much greater impact on students, teachers, parents, families, the system from internal threats,” Miller said. “That is student on student and student on teacher violence.”
A 2017 survey found that about 30 percent of middle and high school students in Baltimore County do not feel safe in their school.
Interim School Superintendent Verletta White said her priority this year is school safety. She’s creating a new division that brings together those responsible for safety — school resource officers for instance, with social workers and psychologists. White said they will then follow the data coming in from schools on misbehavior to help them spot patterns and trends.
“Where we see that we have some issues kind of popping up in a particular school,” White said.
White said when a student causes trouble, a teacher or school administrator will be able to make one call to get help. The new division will then send the person best suited to step in, whether that’s a social worker or a police officer, or both.
“Then we can deploy service to that teacher and to that school,” White said. “Rather than having these isolated calls where there is no interconnectedness between the offices.”
The head of this new division of school climate and safety will be in White’s cabinet and will report to her.
Norrington — the teacher at Patapsco High — said she is pleased by what White is doing because what’s in place now isn’t working. Norrington said discipline has been meted out inconsistently, students have not been held accountable and teachers are left holding the bag.
“Because what happens is a teacher tries to discipline a student, they follow the step,” Norrington said. “And then when it gets to the referral issue and they do not feel backed up, the teacher, then they stop following the discipline because they give up.”
Abby Beytin, the president of the county teachers union, said she hears it from parents and teachers alike, that something has to be done about “those kids.” She takes exception to that term.
“Kids are kids,” Beytin said.
Beytin said all students can be taught. She said the county needs more staff, like psychologists, social workers and counselors, and more teachers and schools so there can be smaller classrooms. That way, Beytin said, they can help students who come through the school house door in need of extra support.
“It could be poverty,” Beytin said. “It could be parents are just not available because they’re working five jobs. It could be homelessness.”
Beytin said there is no quick fix here, and that brings us to the state commission that for two years has been studying how the state spends money on education. It is expected to present its recommendations later this year to the legislature and the governor.
Beytin said she hopes state leaders will have the will to spend the money to provide a level playing field for “those kids” who need more help.