Baltimore County executive proposes $8M for school safety, including police officers, counselors

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced Thursday an $8 million public school safety package that would pay for more school resource officers, social workers and counselors throughout the school district.

The plan would become an annual county expense, funding 109.5 new positions including 19 school resource officers, 22 social workers, 23 counselors and 18 school psychologists, as well as pupil personnel workers, health assistants and bus attendants.

The proposal would need approval by the County Council, where a majority of members have expressed support.

The package is the latest school security funding initiative from a jurisdiction in the Baltimore region in the wake of high-profile shootings at schools, most recently Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County in March and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February.

In recent weeks, officials throughout the region have rolled out proposals to improve school security, from a two-year, $14.8 million plan in Anne Arundel County to Carroll County’s placement of sheriff’s deputies in schools for the first time. The Harford and Howard county executives also have pledged new spending on school safety measures..

The additional school resource officials in Kamenetz’s plan would bring the total to 85 police officers stationed in Baltimore County schools. Currently, all public middle and high schools in the county have a uniformed resource officer.

Ten of the additional officers would be spread out among the Police Department’s 10 precincts, with the officers spending time in each of the precinct’s elementary schools. The other nine would be assigned to middle and high schools as needed.

Kamenetz, a Democrat who is running for his party’s nomination for governor, said he will include the spending in his final county budget, which will be unveiled next week.

“As government leaders, we all have an obligation to do everything that we can to protect our children, who really just want to learn, and also educators who just want to teach,” he said during a news conference at West Towson Elementary School.

Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said the additional positions are welcome, if overdue.

“This is something we have been asking for for several years,” Beytin said. “We have been clamoring for this.”

Verletta White, the school system’s interim superintendent, said the additional counselors, psychologists and social workers will help provide the social and emotional “wrap-around services” that students need. Such attention can help prevent discipline problems before they happen, she said.

“We want our children to be safe while they are learning,” White said.

The social worker, counselor and psychologist positions announced by Kamenetz expands upon what the school system had sought in its budget request for next year. The system had asked for 16 additional social workers, 18 counselors and seven psychologists, according to county officials.

“School safety is about guns, but it’s more than just guns. … School safety is very much a mental health issue,” Kamenetz said. “It’s about giving our schools the resources they need to help students who are having difficulty.”

The county has spent the last several years upgrading security systems in public schools, spurred in part by a shooting on the first day of school in 2012 at Perry Hall High School that wounded one student.

Kamenetz said the Perry Hall shooting, which was followed by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut four months later, shocked him.

“I would have thought that Baltimore County would have been immune to this type of incident, but unfortunately, we were not,” he said.

Since 2011, the county has spent $13.6 million upgrading and expanding video surveillance systems that police officers can access, installing locking doors and rolling out “OneCard” student identification cards.

The school resource officer program began in 1996 and was ramped up after the Perry Hall shooting.

Six of the current 65 school resource officer positions are funded by revenue from county speed and red-light cameras. Some of the security upgrades also have been funded by speed and red-light camera revenue.

Council Chairman Julian Jones said he doesn’t expect Kamenetz’s additional spending plan to meet with resistance when the County Council reviews the budget.

“The council members that I work with have never blinked when it came to doing what was in the best interests and the best security for our children, and I am certain they will pass this budget as well,” said Jones, a Woodstock Democrat who joined Kamenetz at the West Towson announcement.

Councilman David Marks has been asking for more school resource officers at Perry Hall High School and Perry Hall Middle School.

“I welcome this investment and would like to see a major expansion of the school resource officer program,” said Marks, a Republican who graduated from Perry Hall.

Marks said he also would like to see the school system “step up” its discipline policies and do a better job communicating with parents about discipline and safety concerns.

Councilman Tom Quirk said he thinks the county already is “ahead of the curve” on school security. He, too, predicted the council would support the additional spending.

“When it comes to the safety of our kids, we have to prioritize it no matter what. We’ll find the resources if needed to accommodate it,” said Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat.

Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who as a parent advocate in the 1990s lobbied for the creation of the school resource officer program, said she welcomes the additional police officers in schools.

Almond, who is running for county executive, said the addition of counselors, psychologists and social workers may relieve some of the burden that falls to teachers to help children with emotional challenges.

“That is so important for our teachers moving forward because that will give them more time to teach,” the Reisterstown Democrat said.

Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, said the additional staffing is a “step in the right direction” but he wants to hear more about how the numbers of positions were determined and if it’s part of an overall study of staffing needs.

The March shooting at Great Mills High School has been mentioned by many leaders in pushing for more spending on school security. Student Austin Wyatt Rollins brought his father’s Glock handgun to school on March 20 and fatally shot a classmate with whom he had a prior relationship. Another student was shot in the leg. Rollins died after shooting himself in the head, though a school resource officer “engaged” Rollins and shot him in the hand that held the gun.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh has pledged $14.8 million over two years for more secure doors and bulletproof shields, as well as enough school resource officers to staff all middle and high schools.

This week, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman announced he would put $1.2 million in the county’s budget for next year to pay for seven more school resource officers and security measures such as improved radios and security cameras.

And Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman has said he will include $1.1 million in the county’s upcoming budget for more door locks at high schools and additional school resource officers at middle schools.

Schuh, Glassman and Kittleman all are Republicans running for re-election this year.

In Carroll County, the sheriff’s office has placed deputies in various schools for the remainder of the school year, and officials there will evaluate the feasibility of starting a school resource officer program. Carroll County announced the plan the day of the Great Mills shooting.

Kamenetz’s proposal for funding more school resource officers and other school employees is the third budget item that he’s announced in advance of unveiling the full proposed budget next week. He’s already announced plans to include money to pay for more high school graduates to attend community college tuition-free and an increase in grants for arts institutions.

After Kamenetz proposes his budget, it will go to the Baltimore County Council for review. Council members will hold a public hearing on the budget May 1. They can make cuts to the budget, but cannot add or redistribute money.

The budget will guide the county’s spending for the 12-month period that begins July 1.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Erika Butler, Emily Chappell, Rachael Pacella and Kate Magill contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
66°