Ken Harris and the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center
I'd been meaning to give Ken Harris a call. The Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center, which he helped found in 2003 as a city councilman and tracked closely as chair of the council's education committee, closed down this summer. I figured he'd have something to say about that.
BTAC, as the center was called, was supposed to be a place where truant students and their families would get connected with whatever social services they needed. Kids picked up on the street during the school day would be transported to a building next to Dunbar High School in East Baltimore where a variety of service providers were on hand to meet with them and the adults coming to pick them up. But over time, the center began to run into a host of logistical problems: Police officers were dropping off more students than the center could handle. (While BTAC was only supposed to get truants -- those with 20 or more unexcused absences -- it was also getting run-of-the-mill class-cutters, and fights between rival gang members were breaking out.) "It was terrible," said Joe Sacco, BTAC's former executive director. "They started to bring kids, 150 a day from all over the city. I said, 'We can’t give them the kind of treatment that they need. We’re bringing them into an environment that’s gang-related.' All we were doing was warehousing them. Ken would keep on hollering and screaming at everybody, saying 'you can’t do this.'"
While Harris pushed in vain for a second center on the west side, BTAC changed its structure so that its staff made house-calls to the students with the worst truancy records -- much like Dr. Alonso ordered high schools to do for dropouts last week -- and invited families to come in for a service assessment. But when construction on Dunbar began last year, BTAC staff found themselves in an office without heat or running water. (They ran a garden hose in from outside.) It was no place to be serving the public. Eventually, this summer, BTAC shut down, and the money being used to run it went instead to help open the city's new alternative schools.
Sacco, who retired in disgust in March, suspects that many of the problems that BTAC encountered were political retaliation against Harris, who unsuccessfully challenged Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (and Michael Sarbanes) to the council presidency last year and was deeply involved in BTAC's daily operations. "Ken would want to know what was going on at least every other day, if not every day," Sacco said. "He was very active. This was his baby."
A former cop, Sacco knows a thing or two about politics: He served as William Donald Schaefer's bodyguard when Schaefer was governor. He said Martin O'Malley was a big supporter of BTAC when he was mayor (his wife, Katie, made truancy her pet issue when she became Maryland's first lady), but the center began encountering resistence as soon as the administration changed.
It's strange for Sacco now, in the wake of Harris's murder on Saturday, to watch the politicians he sparred with remembering him so fondly.