Necessary Precaution or Unnecessary Policing?
By Kathy Knotts
Four proposed bills are currently in committees before the Maryland General Assembly that could radically change how schools and law enforcement work together in the future.
At the heart of the issue: concerns that the presence of school resource officers causes tension and fear among minority students, minor transgressions are being criminalized, and law enforcement officers are involved in situations better left to teachers and mental health professionals.
House Bill 496, sponsored by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery), House Bill 1089, sponsored by Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery), and Senate Bill 245, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles County), aim to bring major changes to the role of school resource officers (SROs) in public schools. Del. Alonzo Washington’s (D-Prince George’s) House Bill 522 prevents school administrators from using school resource officers to enforce discipline-related school policies, rules or carrying out disciplinary actions. All four bills have been heard in committee, with public testimony from witnesses.
Wilkins’s bill, also known as Counselors Not Cops, proposes diverting the current state funding of $10 million for SROs to other programs and services that support student mental and behavioral health, restorative justice and wraparound services. Wilkins says her bill would not stop local jurisdictions from funding the program, but wants the state’s money to be used in a different way.
Acevero’s bill, the Police-Free Schools Act, would remove police officers from schools and replace them with security employees without the authority to arrest students. It would prohibit school systems from contracting with law enforcement to station officers with arrest authority on school property, and provide more mental and behavioral health services to students.
Ellis’s bill does not do away with the SRO program but would prohibit an officer from entering a school building except under certain circumstances and by direct invitation by school administration, make them conceal certain weapons and require them to wear civilian clothing.
The sponsors and proponents of the bills say the time has come to end police presence in schools, which supports the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” and disproportionately affects Black, LGBTQ+ and students with disabilities. The school-to-prison pipeline is a term used to describe the trend of charging students as criminals for what once might have been only a detention-worthy transgression or simply for misbehavior, a practice that sets them up to drop out of school.
Ellis pointed out during his bill’s hearing that Black students returning to schools for the first time after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer last summer may be suffering from trauma every time they see an SRO in uniform.
The state senator shared the story of his own son being targeted by a white teacher in school, saying he never wants another child to feel that way. “These are kids,” Ellis said. “All of us have bad days, but do you want a police officer hovering over you when you are having a bad day? We need our law enforcement officers and I will be the first to say that we need them and we respect them. But when we send our babies to school, do we really want a law enforcement officer roaming the halls dealing with them? I don’t. I want a teacher to deal with them.”
A renewed push for school safety came to the state’s attention with the passage of the Safe to Learn Act of 2018, calling for officers in school buildings and increased access to mental health services. The act was crafted in response to a spate of school violence across the nation, including a shooting at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County just days before the act was passed. SRO Blaine Gaskill is credited for helping to stop the gunman from potentially harming others.
There are 10 SROs and one supervisor currently serving in Calvert County schools and 20 in Anne Arundel County. The SROs are all sworn law enforcement officers with mandatory 40-hour minimum of specialized training, with the power to arrest and carry weapons, and are employees of their respective county departments—Calvert County Sheriff’s Office and the Anne Arundel County Police Department—not the school systems.
According to Larry Titus, Calvert County Public Schools Community Resource & School Safety Specialist, there is one SRO assigned to each middle and high school within the system and the SROs make themselves available to the feeder elementary schools they serve.
For many years, Calvert County Public Schools have employed safety advocates for school security, retired law enforcement individuals with no police power or authority. Presently the county still employs two safety advocates in each high school and one advocate for every two middle schools, in addition to the SROs.
“The SROs assigned to CCPS have historically and continue to be an essential part of the CCPS total school safety program,” said Titus. “The SRO’s presence at the various schools provides an added recourse as they continue to work with troubled youth, provide safety presentations to classes, security during athletic events, information sharing regarding community matters that affect the school environment, and the list goes on.”
Rick Weber, principal at Huntingtown High School, says the presence of SROs is overall a good thing but can be “tricky” at times. “The SROs really have two bosses,” he said. “Ultimately their boss is the sheriff, not us. So we have to make sure we work out how this is going to work, how to share information. They can’t treat things in a school as if they were on the beat in the street… there’s a big difference when an SRO gets involved.”
Weber says overall, his staff and the community at large appreciates having a police officer on campus. “One of the reasons there was the push to have them in school was school shootings, people thought it was important to have armed police in the school as a deterrent. But they are also a resource for other things that come up.”
At first, Weber says, he wasn’t in favor of having officers at the school. “When they first came in, I thought other personnel, counselors, were more valuable. It is good having another set of eyes in the building, no matter who they are, to keep an eye on things, especially at times like arrival and dismissals, at lunch. But when an issue rises to the level of needing police, to have someone available is an asset. One of the most valuable things they do is, if there is a need for a threat assessment—say a child doesn’t come to school and may be a threat to themselves or others—the SRO can visit the home and evaluate the threat to see if there is a problem there. That could be done by calling the sheriff’s office, but it’s good if it’s someone you—and the student—knows.”
This is one of the benefits of the SRO program, says Sgt. Kam Cooke with the Anne Arundel County Police Department.
Having an officer in a school is important for community policing, says Cooke. “One of the most important things that we look at is creating relationships…some of our SROs coach sports, some are mentors to students who may need a father figure or mother figure, only one part of that (role) is the safety of our kids in school.”
SROs have been a part of the school landscape in Anne Arundel County since 2001, when a cooperative agreement with the school system helped to create the program, starting with seven select middle schools.
Cpl. Jon Carrier has been with the program from its inception. He helped create the curriculum for the SRO training program for the state, and other localities look to Anne Arundel County as a model, said Cooke.
“I have been in law enforcement for 32 years, and our unit (SRO) is 20 years old,” says Carrier, who is also the president of the Maryland Association of School Resource Officers. “We have won national awards as a model program for the way we do things,” he adds, citing awards from the School Safety Advocacy Council plus awards from the Governor’s Office on Crime Prevention, Youth and Victim Services.
Carrier has been the SRO at Southern High School in Lothian for two years and was at South River High School for eight years before that. “Most of my conversations at school are positive, even if I have to tell parents bad news about their child,” he said. “In every action we do, the way we train is that, no matter what, if I have to arrest a child for a serious assault or theft, I want to still make it a positive interaction. I want to teach them that it’s a behavior-changing incident and walk through the process with them.”
The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) compiles data on school-related arrests. For 2018–2019, the latest data available, in Anne Arundel County, there were 356 arrests, while Calvert County reported 185 students arrested.
“Every school has their issues: weapons, drugs, alcohol, serious fights. Sometimes students make serious threats. A lot goes on at a high school level,” said Carrier. “It’s disappointing when people say SROs are not needed. We mitigate a lot of those things by the relationships we have with these kids. Even those who have negative views of law enforcement—I am still there for their child, no matter what.”
Yet those seeking reform or removal of SROs say the officers’ presence does not actually protect students. “School should be a place of learning, with men and women in civilian clothes, not officers in police uniforms with weapons,” Ellis said, sponsor of HB 496.
“The school police model has failed Maryland’s students. 40 years of research demonstrates that it has not prevented school shootings or reduced school-based violence of any kind” says Monisha Cherayil, an attorney for The Public Justice Center, a legal advocacy group based in Baltimore. “At the same time, it has resulted in the arrests of children—particularly Black children and children with disabilities—for minor childhood behaviors, like fighting and disruption, perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline.” The group, along with members of the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability, has testified in support of both HB 1089 and HB 496.
Mckayla Wilkes, the recent Democratic challenger for Steny Hoyer’s seat in the U.S. House, has been a vocal critic of law enforcement in schools. After her unsuccessful campaign, she began a nonprofit, Schools Not Jails, to help dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, something she says she is all too familiar with. “I was arrested by SROs,” Wilkes told the Senate committee during the hearing for SB 245. “I was thrown directly into that pipeline. I wasn’t arrested for committing any type of crime, I was arrested for status offenses (truancy).”
Students have mixed emotions about the presence of SROs. Drake Smith, student member of the Board of Education in Anne Arundel County and a Meade High School senior, says much depends on an individual school. Around the county, “we don’t have SROs that do the things we are seeing on TV,” he says. “They are trained, they know how to handle things and they don’t get involved in things that the administration should handle.”
Smith, who returned to in-person classes this week, says that recent events do shine a new light on the presence of SROs. “We have had students sitting at home watching Black and brown people getting harassed, beaten and murdered by police officers around the country… we see ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) and ‘f the police’ all over social media… right now it is important for all SROs to form a relationship with every single student they can. They have to do twice, three times, the amount of work to build those relationships back up. What’s happened nationally has eroded our trust.”
At press time, HB522 was scheduled to be voted on in the Ways & Means committee. CBM Bay Weekly will update this story online and on social media as it develops.