School resource officers can help prevent shootings

In 1998, Baltimore County was experiencing a sharp spike in crime, nearly one-third of it committed by juveniles. As Baltimore County executive, I met with our police chief and pitched an idea to put police officers in our public schools. I was met with resistance from the county school board, administration and parents. It was understandable: though school resource officers have been around since the 1950s, the concept was relatively new here in Maryland. And it was expensive, costing about $50,000 each year for each officer at the time.

But I felt strongly that it could work, and I was dogged by a dynamic and persuasive community activist — and mom — named Vicki Almond who now sits on the Baltimore County Council. I budgeted for the county’s first school resource officers in public schools. To start, we chose two schools that had a history of problems — Milford Mill Academy and Pikesville High School — and almost immediately we saw results.

We applied for a grant and eventually ended up with one school resource officer (SRO) in every county high school. Most of the middle schools soon had them as well. The Baltimore County SRO program has won a national award and is a model for others around the country.

This week, it was an SRO who helped defuse a tense situation at Loch Raven High School. One day after a student killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla., Loch Raven’s SRO received a tip that a student was concealing a gun in a backpack. The weapon, which turned out to be a realistic-looking pellet gun, was recovered and the student was taken into custody without any injuries (“Loch Raven High student arrested after bringing pellet gun to school, Baltimore County police say,” Feb. 15).

With each mass shooting — from Columbine to Sandy Hook — I have called for common sense measures to keep guns away from bad guys like background checks. There are also things we can do to reduce the carnage. Ban bump stocks. Ban high-capacity magazines. Ban assault weapons.

And put an SRO in every school in America.

It’s true that an SRO won’t stop every school shooting — in fact, there was one on duty in Parkland on Wednesday. But we will never know how many shootings these officers will prevent. SROs don’t just provide physical protection for students from outsiders and each other. They also help to identify bullies in the classroom and online. They are intelligence officers for the precincts where they work: SROs are the first officers their colleagues go to if a crime appears to be juvenile-oriented. In Baltimore County, SROs have helped to solve crimes ranging from homicides to destruction of property.

Many SROs go on to teach classes, volunteer in after-school programs, or coach a sports team. They are also recruiters, getting students interested in law enforcement and thinking about careers beyond graduation. They teach students that police are not the enemy. And they help them make smart choices.

Perhaps the student at Loch Raven High brought a pellet gun to school this week as a cry for help. Thanks to an alert SRO, he may get it before he becomes the next Nikolas Cruz and before Loch Raven becomes the next Parkland. That alone is worth every dollar spent on the program.

In Congress, in my role as an appropriator, I will be working to defend the federal COPS grant program, which helps counties pay for SROs, from cuts proposed by President Donald Trump in his budget blueprint released earlier this week. But we need elected leaders at every level to work together to find a way to put an SRO at every school in America. The price for not doing so is too great.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Washington, D.C.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Maryalnd’s 2nd District in the House of Representatives.

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