Police representatives impressed the Anne Arundel County school board last week with lower student arrest numbers collected before coronavirus ended in-person teaching last spring and new engagement programs that will begin during virual learning.
But as incoming school Board of Education member Joanna Bache Tobin watched Wednesday’s meeting, the update from county police school resource officers made her further question whether police are needed in schools.
“I did not see an answer to the essential question that gets asked over and over again: to what extent are we addressing the school-to-prison pipeline problem?” Tobin said. “Are SROs part of that?”
Timmeka Perkins, juvenile and victim assistance director for the Anne Arundel police department, presented the school board with updates on the department’s Youth & Community Services Unit, including a more than 21% decrease in school-based charges last school year and several new strategies for student engagement.
In the 2019-2020 school year, 751 citations, including repeat offenders, were issued. Based on the previous year’s data, Perkins said about 960 citations would’ve been issued in the same amount of time.
The 2019-2020 numbers take coronavirus closures into account, Perkins said. The pandemic afforded police the opportunity to put more resources into her unit, so she only expects a further decrease in charges with the new rollout of diversion programming.
“The slow down in the world enabled us to put things on paper and strategically and intentionally plan these new programs,” Perkins said after the meeting.
One of those new strategies is a monthly Minority Youth Advisory Council meeting for students and police to have discussions in an open forum, in what police call “an opportunity for restorative justice.”
Student board member Drake Smith said he’d be signing up for the first meeting in January. The application deadline for students is Dec. 11.
“I will keep on pushing (to promote the program),” Smith told Perkins during the meeting. “You are doing amazing work. You’re taking progressive actions and it’s really exciting.”
Board member Candace Antwine — who last year requested regular SRO reports after The Capital’s story on arrests at Meade — commended Perkins and even asked about how students can be recruited into the police force.
But Tobin is still skeptical.
After the meeting, she said she was glad to see initiatives moving forward, but she wants more data on the extent that school resource officers make students safer.
“Why do the people doing this need to be police officers who carry guns, who arrest students?” Tobin asked.
School resource officers are required by state law and if a high school is not assigned an SRO, they are required to report how adequate local law enforcement coverage will be provided to the high school, Perkins said.
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The point of the officers is not to arrest students, Perkins said, but to build relationships that prevent crime.
“The relationships developed in the schools extend into more positive interactions and relationships between law enforcement and the community at large,” Perkins said. “These relationships are a key part of crime prevention and response. Often times students disclose incidents of violence (abuse, sexual assault, etc.) that occur outside of the schools with their SRO because of the relationship and the trust they have developed, situations where they otherwise would not have disclosed.”
Tobin will join the school board at the second meeting in December, along with new members Robert Silkworth and Corine Frank.
“I’m sitting on the outside right now,” Tobin said. “I don’t think this is something that can be dealt with overnight but I’m going to do whatever is in my power as a Board of Education member to get better information on this.”
Until her term starts, she said she’s taking in what she hears from school community members.
“Just as a candidate, I’ve found vastly divergent opinions,” Tobin said. “Some believe (SROs are) absolutely critical to the school and some students say they feel like they’re being watched and it isn’t a school-to-prison pipeline — it’s a prison-to-prison pipeline.