School fights posted on social media, reports of bullying, and the discovery of loaded guns on campus have sparked a debate over whether Baltimore County schools are doing enough to combat school violence. The school system, however, said the rate of violence has decreased overall and that no student who breaks the rules goes unpunished.

Dissatisfied with the school’s response, parents have held a town hall meeting, gathered for a rally and called for change at school board meetings.

The discussion comes against the backdrop of school board races that will help determine the direction of the suburban school district. Candidates backed by the teachers union and the Democratic county executive are squaring off against more conservative challengers in four contested races. It will likely fall to the new board, which faces a near-total makeover by year’s end as a result of elections and appointed members with terms coming to an end, to determine whether to renew the contract of Superintendent Darryl Williams.

Activists aligned with the Republican Party are among those who have criticized the district’s track record on school violence, but criticism has also come from a local NAACP branch.

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Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown NAACP, wrote school board Chairwoman Julie Henn to demand the district issue long-term suspensions to any student involved in violent behavior. Students who commit a second offense should be sent to an alternative school or a virtual learning program, Coleman said.

Child Trends, a nonprofit research center, reported in 2021 that students who are Black or who have disabilities are more likely to face suspension. The Maryland State Department of Education said in 2018 that the county school system disproportionately disciplined both Black students and those receiving special education services, according to the system’s recent equity report.

Coleman doesn’t want students to be disciplined unfairly or suspended for minor offenses, he said, and he doesn’t believe suspension alone is the answer. But he said a spike in violence affects academic outcomes, and that an inability to learn coupled with a lack of discipline can put some kids on the path to prison.

It’s “really frustrating to hear there’s not an increase in [school violence] … but our branch is seeing three fights a week,” he said. “These aren’t fights. These are brawls.”

He said the NAACP tries to help by mentoring students, but that it’s not enough. “If a kid can’t read, if a kid can’t do math, what is mentoring going to do?” he asked.

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Coleman said that if the school system doesn’t show gains in academic achievement and curb school violence, the Randallstown branch will urge the school board not to renew Williams’ contract in 2023.

“I think it’s prudent to evaluate Dr. Williams and to evaluate everyone in the school system before getting another term,” he said. “If there’s little to no progress … I can’t imagine keeping Dr. Williams on.”

The superintendent declined to address Coleman’s comments. Disciplinary issues were among the concerns cited by some County Council members who in June called on the school board to start looking for a new superintendent. Council members also cited transportation, student achievement and low employee morale among their concerns.

Williams responded then that he understood it was an election year and defended his work to address the school system’s problems. And the district on Oct. 13 held a virtual town hall on safe and supportive environments. According to school leaders, the school system doesn’t hesitate to take action when students misbehave.

“There is a narrative in the community that we are not holding students accountable for their behaviors,” Williams said. “That simply is not true. Violent and aggressive behavior has resulted in suspension from school and the bus.”

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During a recent town hall meeting, school administrators acknowledged that the number of “aggressive behaviors” by sixth graders had gone up, from 150 between August-October 2021 to 200 so far this school year. But they stressed that the district had shown improvement at all other grade levels.

The middle school grades have the most aggressive behavior, followed by ninth and 10th grades.

“Ninety-nine percent of aggressive behaviors have led to out-of-school suspensions and are subject to serious school and legal consequences,” said Kandice Taylor, the district’s safety manager. She said many incidents stemmed from interactions outside of school in the community or on social media.

Baltimore County Police responded to hundreds of calls to high schools for assaults, rapes, disruptive behavior and deadly weapons violations, according to data obtained by The Baltimore Banner from the county Police Department.

At Dundalk High School, police responded 19 times to reports of deadly weapons, while officers responded 10 times at Lansdowne. In all, county police responded 67 times to reports of a deadly weapon in the county high schools. County police also logged hundreds of assaults at high schools, including 35 at Woodlawn.

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Safety assistants were the third-most requested resource for the fiscal year 2023 budget, staff said during the recent town hall. With grant funds, they hired more than 140 safety assistants to focus on de-escalation and relationship building. The system has 34 school resource officers, with three or four floaters on the way. Additional counselors were budgeted for this school year, but given the severe staffing shortage, counselors are being used to cover gaps in other offices and schools.

When students break the rules, staffers consider if the consequences for the students worked in the past and what additional behavioral support they received, according to Kyria Joseph, executive director of high schools.

“Consequences are not a one-size-fits-all,” she said. “Once the consequence is served, restoration must take place to repair the relationship with the school community.”

The most serious violations bring more severe consequences. But suspensions and expulsions aren’t the only way staff respond. They also implement restorative practices.

“The student responsible for causing the harm should engage in restorative practices in order to return the relationships or the community to their original, positive state,” the school handbook states.

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Restorative activities include students sitting in a “community circle” to share their thoughts and feelings, or in peer mediation, where students act as moderators between two or more other students with a conflict.

“Restorative practices in isolation don’t work,” said Jennifer Mullenax, executive director of elementary schools, during the town hall.

One parents group has launched a movement to press the district to do more. The Baltimore County Parent and Student Coalition describes itself as a nonpartisan volunteer grassroots organization, though it is affiliated with Republicans like county executive candidate Pat McDonough and promotes conservative-leaning school board candidates.

The group held its own town hall last month to talk about school violence. Among those in attendance was Charles Neal, a pastor at the Family Comprehensive Worship Center in Baltimore. He said his niece was attacked at Perry Hall High School and defended herself and her family by wielding a baseball bat in the school parking lot.

Neal shared the story again at a rally that the coalition organized the following week outside of the high school. “We want the school administration to hear our voice,” Neal said to a small audience through a mic and speakers.

Darren Badillo, a parent who belongs to the coalition, also attended. He said schools need to hold children, parents and school officials accountable. Children who can’t conduct themselves should be placed in an alternative program, he suggested.

“I see the kids saying, ‘I don’t know what else to do,’” said Badillo, who ran for county executive in the Republican primaries. “I just feel the pressure that they’re under. And I think if they can’t speak for themselves, then I need to and our parents need to.”

McDonough, also in attendance, outlined his plans to address school violence if elected. Part of his plan is called Safe Kids 911, which recommends that parents go to local police instead of the school system if their child gets in a fight.

“We know who the enemy is, we know who we cannot rely on, we know what we have to do,” he said.

Danita Tolson, president of the county’s NAACP, disagreed. In a recent interview, she stressed the importance of bringing the community together to make progress. A way to address school violence is not with harsher discipline, she said, but for the community to come together.

“We need to join forces with the school system,” she said. “And not only just complain, but we need to be part of the solution.”

Finger-pointing won’t help, she added, and neither will suspensions. But counseling and getting to the root of the issue can.