Citing the recent shooting in Newtown, Conn., the Havre de Grace City Council narrowly approved a $40,000 budget amendment to add two more school resource officers to its daily patrol through March.
Mayor Wayne Dougherty said plans to add officers had been in the works for some time but the elementary school shooting brought the idea to the forefront.
"All of this was being planned before. The economic times was creating a lot of uncertainty and we didn't proceed at that time," he said.
Council members Joe Smith and Barbara Wagner voted against the budget amendment, saying more time is needed to study the proposal and consider the effectiveness of school resource officers. Councilman David Glenn was not at Monday's meeting.
Several residents also spoke at the council meeting, with mixed opinions on the budget amendment.
Dougherty's amendment, dated Jan. 3, says the Newtown shooting "has captured national attention and the safety of children while at school is at the forefront of parental concern."
"I have, therefore, increase[d] Police patrol at our schools, effective immediately. My intention is to reassure our parents and strongly discourage any misguided attempt to garner publicity while recent events capture our nation's attention," the amendment continues.
The amendment redirects $40,000 from the city's capital program toward police overtime to accommodate the additional patrol in city schools.
Police Chief Teresa Walter said she does not necessarily expect to actually spend that much money.
"The $40,000 is estimated to fund the additional cost of adding 2 School Resource Officers to the daily patrol while school is in session for the months of January and February," Dougherty wrote in the memo to the council. "During this time, I have tasked Chief Walter to look at enhancing school safety for the long-term, look at best practices being performed elsewhere in light of recent events and to provide recommendations for the remainder of this year and the upcoming budget."
Smith, who had previously come out in support of regulating semi-automatic weapons, tried to table the vote. He said although he "obviously" supported increased security in schools, he could not find much research on the effectiveness of school resource officers.
"I understand they're popular," he noted.
Walter said there are many philosophies on such officers and their roles have changed over time, and have changed based on the type of school environment.
Smith said he would also want to hear from parent-teacher associations about the impact the budget amendment would have.
Wagner, meanwhile, was concerned about going over the head of the Harford County Board of Education with the amendment.
"I don't want to see us take any action that would jeopardize that relationship," she said, adding she thinks "professional courtesy" needs to be extended to the board of education. "The [SRO] programs are already in place in schools. It's not going to change anything that's going to happen tomorrow."
Smith also said the process needs to be much more deliberate and involve the various government entities working together, especially if the goal is to possibly have the two additional officers become permanent.
"If you start to add SRO's to multiple jurisdictions, then there is going to be a need to hire a lot more people and hire a lot more officers to fill those roles," he said.
Councilman Randy Craig disagreed, saying "there comes a time to act" and explaining that the SRO program is very broad.
"The SRO program is not, as was discussed, an armed guard in a school. It's much bigger than that, it's much broader than that," he said. "The SRO program is important to this community and it's been successful."
Walter said she spoke with Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Tomback and did agree with Wagner that several board members did seem surprised.
"I think the way the board of ed found out about it was not the most appropriate, to be perfectly honest with you," Walter said.
Councilman Bill Martin, however, said the issue is not one that just came out during winter break but had been discussed for some time. He said an SRO had been added in middle schools halfway through the last school year and been transferred to Meadowvale Elementary to see how it would work.
Unfortunately, he said, that officer had to be transferred back to the middle school because of "manpower allocations."
Martin, an eighth-grade teacher, also said SRO's serve a much broader purpose "besides the occasional shootout."
He said middle schools have changed and have children of vastly different backgrounds.
"You've got kids that have a little bracelet because they're still on house arrest sitting next to kids who still believe in Santa Claus," Martin said.
"Bullying is always a factor. You can have all the feel-good campaigns you want," he said. "I have seen kids go bonkers and run the hallway with butane and lighters, screaming, and the SRO is there to get them."
"We're not trying to put an officer in our schools like it's the Wild West. They're not going to walk in there with an M-14 rifle and scare the kids," he said, adding that the city already has an SRO program and is just asking for two more.
"We are a sovereign city, we tax our own citizens, they expect this from us. I urge my council members to support this," he said.
Councilman David Glenn, who has also been active in schools, was not at the meeting but Dougherty read an e-mail on his behalf that strongly supported the amendment.
"This is without a doubt a defining moment for the citizens of Havre de Grace," Glenn said in the letter. "As in any occupation, the one thing you don't want to compromise is safety."
Martin said he thinks Congress will start having serious dialogue about having more SRO's in schools.
"I think it's where the future's heading, personally. I think within the next decade, all schools will have them," he said. "Years ago, we didn't have school nurses. I'm sure people thought back then, how do we afford a nurse at every school? But we do. We afford them because we have to."
"My kids' safety, school nurses and good teachers: it's the biggest bargain we have in America," he said.
Several residents had differing opinions on the amendment.
Hollee Sifford, of Chapel Heights Drive, said she is a mother and has seen an SRO in action.
"He was very effective and he set the precedent for every single SRO who is in this town," she said. "I don't really think arguing over the cost is effective."
"At the end of the day, it's the parents that want to see them [children] come home and teachers who want to teach them," she said.
Another resident, on Market Street, noted Columbine High had a full-time SRO who was unable to stop the shootings.
Dougherty replied that the job description of the SRO has changed since then, and now an SRO is the first line of defense.
Joe Kochenderfer, of Tydings Road, wondered about the difference between SROs and school guards and questioned whether the amendment was precipitated by the Newton shooting.
"It's something that has been in the planning stages for quite some time," Dougherty replied.
Also at the meeting, Lynn Jurkowski was sworn in as planning commission member.
VFW Vice Commander Mary Wilson, Quartermaster Craig Reeling; Chaplain Steve Koester and Adjutant Judge Advocate Russ Levey were among those to receive recognitions.
The council also went into closed session to discuss property acquisition and legal matters.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun