Mark Bedell wants a conversation about youth violence in Annapolis.
The superintendent of Anne Arundel County Public Schools, he started it off last week, talking about nine homicides in the city this year — some of them involving teenage boys — and recent fights at Annapolis High.
“We can’t be the greatest educational institution and the greatest social services institution. You can’t be great at both of them,” Bedell said. “So this is where we’re saying that we have to have community mobilization to help us with this and that’s why we need each other. And so today is really about us figuring out as a community what we are willing to tolerate. Because when the community rises and says, enough is enough to violence, that’s when it will stop.”
Unfortunately, Bedell was having a conversation largely with himself at this point.
More than half of the 100 or so people in the Wiley H. Bates Legacy Center on Dec. 11 wore Anne Arundel County Public Schools ID badges, swinging from lanyards around their necks or drawn up tight against their beltline on retractable cords.
There was no one in the room representing City Hall. City Council was having its regular second Monday meeting. A few members of the Annapolis Education Commission were present, a volunteer group that talks about county schools that serve the city.
City Police Chief Ed Jackson wasn’t there, nor was anyone from his command staff. There was no one from Anne Arundel County Police, whose officers flooded Annapolis High after fights in September and November.
No one from the county Department of Health was in the room. It is about to launch a pilot program aimed at addressing gun violence in the Eastport Terrace and Harbour House public housing complex.
Outside the school community, hardly anyone knew about Bedell’s talk.
So, it wasn’t much of a conversation. Maybe it was a beginning. It seemed more of a plea for help.
“I don’t want to be on CNN or FOX News having to explain, how did this happen, Dr. Bedell, on your watch as superintendent?” Bedell said.
There appears to be a countywide rise in violent and dangerous incidents across county schools. Bedell and other county school officials say part of it is the continuing aftereffect of shutting down in-person schools during COVID.
Last year, there were 5,065 students in Anne Arundel County Public Schools who got into trouble for fighting and other behavior considered unsafe. In the first marking period of this academic year, 1,579 students were referred for discipline. If that rate holds through June, it would represent something like a 24% increase in school violence.
Those numbers are similar to what is happening in the 12 public schools that serve Annapolis. Last year, 545 students got discipline referrals for physical misconduct, and 168 students in the first quarter. That works out to a 23% increase, if the trend holds.
In Annapolis, Bedell and those same school officials who cite COVID for the rise in discipline numbers say the problem is something more.
“The needs of our schools are different,” said Jessica Pachler, a member of the city education commission who has four kids in school across the city. “You have a city that says it’s the schools’ problem and a schools superintendent who says it’s a community problem.”
Annapolis schools combine urban and suburban neighborhoods, with families facing generational poverty living next to wealthy homeowners in a community that straddles the city-county line. The high school is the most diverse in the county, roughly 40% Hispanic, 30% Black and 30% white.
Academically, Annapolis High has to serve students who lag behind for economic or cultural reasons while at the same time offering two magnet programs, the only Navy Junior ROTC program in the county, and at least 27 advanced placement courses.
About a third of Annapolis families send their kids to private school, while still others find a way to have their children attend South River High to the south and Broadneck High to the north. Even with all those defections, the high school is crowded with 2,200 students and is slated for redistricting soon.
Bedell is right that it has been a violent year in Annapolis. There have been nine homicides with less than two weeks left, three of them in one June night. That’s half the total countywide so far in 2023. Last year there was just one in the city.
Five of those homicides involved teenagers and young adults, including some current and former students. All of the victims were Black or Latino. Three more people, all in their 40s and from another part of the county, were killed in a May murder-suicide just over the city line and was investigated by Anne Arundel County Police.
Twenty-one people have been shot in Annapolis but survived this year, the same number as in 2022 but five more than the average since 2018, according to Annapolis Police data. There have been 34 confirmed reports of shots fired, and more unconfirmed reports from community activists who say police don’t always investigate.
Through September, there were 54 citations or arrests of juveniles, up from 39 in the first nine months of 2022.
Students who live in the neighborhoods where this is happening — it is usually just a handful of neighborhoods — come to school experiencing psychological trauma. Schools have to deal with that.
Students from these neighborhoods also are cut off from schools in ways that other students are not.
Parents, and sometimes students, work multiple jobs to make ends meet making it hard to get involved. Or, they can’t get to the schools.
If Annapolis High students without a car want to play after-school sports or join a club, they can’t rely on a city bus. Instead, they have to walk 15 minutes to the nearest county transit stop for the bus to Westfield Annapolis mall, and then wait for a city bus that will connect to their neighborhood.
Annapolis offers before and after-school care programs at five city elementary schools — but leaves out three that serve some of its poorest neighborhoods.
Sometimes, disputes start in the neighborhood. Police who work at the high school are county officers, which means there’s no guaranteed channel with city police about trouble coming from the community.
In September and again in November, there were big fights at Annapolis High. Teenagers came in looking for a brawl over suspected neighborhood beef, hunting down specific students and then fleeing. Students were kept in classrooms until the police could sort it out.
Sometimes, though, a school system designed to serve about 83,000 students at 126 schools from Brooklyn Park to Deale struggles to focus on what is needed to address the unique situation in Annapolis.
Maybe Bedell could have invited more people to his chat. But it was a start.
“We legitimately want to partner with the community to begin to focus on the work that needs to be done to make sure that our kids feel like they can learn in a very free, full-blown access, bully-free environment,” he said. “And that’s what we want for all of our schools across the county but in particular out here in the Annapolis cluster because this is where we tend to have more ... violence right now.”
So, let’s talk.