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Removing resource officers from schools would be ‘ridiculous,’ Carroll County sheriff says

Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees called proposed legislation that would prohibit deputies from entering school buildings unless requested by school staff “ridiculous.”

Maryland lawmakers have introduced bills that would alter the school resource officer program during the current session of the general assembly. Some county school boards, such as Howard, are considering whether the program should be removed from its public schools. But Carroll leaders, and some parents, want it to stay.

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The 2018 Safe to Learn Act requires schools to have adequate law enforcement coverage. The act was passed after several high-profile school shootings around the country. Carroll County Public Schools shortly after implemented its school resource officer, or SRO, program. SROs are specially trained deputies who are responsible for law enforcement functions that may arise at the school, according to the CCPS website.

School Resource Officer (SRO) Master Deputy Demonte Harvey chats with students at Century High School during the final days of summer vacation. Pictured are (from left) Mallory Scheurer, Sophia Finis, Anna Bresnahan and Arianna Pineiro.
School Resource Officer (SRO) Master Deputy Demonte Harvey chats with students at Century High School during the final days of summer vacation. Pictured are (from left) Mallory Scheurer, Sophia Finis, Anna Bresnahan and Arianna Pineiro. (Phil Grout-for Carroll County Ti/Carroll County Times)

State Sen. Arthur Ellis, D-Charles, states his bill would prohibit an SRO from entering the building except under certain circumstances, make them conceal certain firearms and require them to wear civilian clothes.

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“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” DeWees said in an interview when asked about SROs being restricted from entering school buildings.

Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, D-Montgomery, introduced a bill that would repeal state funding for SROs and law enforcement coverage and use the $10 million to enhance mental health services for students. She said in a video posted by the ACLU Maryland on Twitter that 460 students were arrested in the past three school years and of the arrests, 83% were Black and Latino despite being the minority population. And ACLU Maryland said in that tweet police perpetuate the school to prison pipeline.

A June 2020 report from Maryland State Department of Education shows Carroll, with over 25,000 students that year, had 30 school arrests, or student-arrests that happened as a result of school incidents, during the 2018-2019 school year. Another report showed of the 30 arrests, 23 were white, 22 were boys and 25 were high school students.

To put 30 arrests in context, Charles County, with a similar student population (over 27,000 enrolled that year), had 198 arrests. Montgomery County, with over 162,000 students, had 163 arrests. Additionally, Baltimore County (nearly 114,000 students) had 259 arrests, Harford County (nearly 38,000 students) had 215 arrests, Howard County (nearly 58,000 students) had 72 arrests, Baltimore City (nearly 80,000 students) had 62 arrests and Frederick county (over 42,000 students) had 40 arrests.

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DeWees took to Facebook on Friday to make his stance clear.

“I 100%, unequivocally DO NOT support the efforts by legislators from other areas of the state with their attempt to remove deputies from Carroll County Public Schools,” he said in a post.

He described the deputies in the program as respected, dynamic, diverse, calm, cool and collected. He added it’s “been extremely successful putting the right deputy at each individual school.”

DeWees said he hasn’t heard complaints about the program that was specific to an individual incident. But he’s aware people do not believe uniformed armed police officers should be in school.

“These are very, very well-trained uniformed police officers,” he said. “I didn’t put people in schools who are ready to retire.”

He found a mix of young and seasoned deputies and supervisors who want to be in the schools, ready to lay down their life if they must and can handle themselves under any circumstance, he said. He added later how popular deputies have become in the school and the community. It’s how he gauges the program’s success.

“I often say an SRO can run for prom king or queen and win,” he said.

With BusPatrol CEO Jean Souliere, right, and CCPS Superintendent Steven Lockard, Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees introduces the BusPatrol advanced stop-arm enforcement technology at Winters Mill High School in Westminster Thursday, October 15, 2020. The BusPatrol technology will be installed on the school system's entire fleet of more than 300 buses.
With BusPatrol CEO Jean Souliere, right, and CCPS Superintendent Steven Lockard, Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees introduces the BusPatrol advanced stop-arm enforcement technology at Winters Mill High School in Westminster Thursday, October 15, 2020. The BusPatrol technology will be installed on the school system's entire fleet of more than 300 buses. (Dylan Slagle)

The sheriff said he keeps in contact with school administration and if there was a problem with the SRO program, he’d be told quickly. But from his observations, the students and SROs have a good relationship.

DeWees said deputies are assigned to each school. They wear body armor and a tool belt equipped with a gun, and to go in without it would put the deputy at a disadvantage if an incident were to occur, he said. The deputies are not involved with school discipline and they work with school administration. He said state legislation should not be treated as a “one size fits all” for this issue. Instead, individual counties should make the decisions.

The county sheriff said it’s easy to ask a guy like him what he thinks of the program, though he has a son in the school system who speaks highly of the SRO in his school. But a better way to see how the program is going is to ask the school community.

In response to a media request, VOCAL Carroll County, a grassroots group, surveyed 20 people in its network asking what they think of the SRO program. Half of the respondents were parents and most answered “yes” to the question “Do you think the Carroll County SRO is successful?”

One of the parents was Tara Battaglia, board of education member. She said in an interview the SROs are “phenomenal” and said she does not want them to be removed.

“They develop incredible relationships with the students and the community they are part of,” she said.

She said she sees them as mentors, counselors and an “in-between” from student to staff member. They go from giving advice to deterring a situation. Battaglia also noted how DeWees picks each deputy for the school and suggested other counties could learn from Carroll.

“Our SROs have my full support,” she said. “Sheriff DeWees has my full support.”

A couple of other parents from the survey commented that children should not be policed and noted a need for mental health services.

Howard County board members have been debating whether to get rid of the SRO program and adding mental health or security staff.

Laura Mettee of Eldersburg, a mom of two seventh graders, said the SROs have done a good job but said “there’s a better partnership to be had.” She said in a message that she knows the SRO program is a “hot button” topic but her focus is on mental health.

“I feel that after the year this country has had, that kids have been through so much mental health trauma, they need so much more,” she said.

She added that when she was growing up, they did not have the program and said she does not know why the school system cannot try a different way to commit to keeping kids safe “and still partner with SROs in very different ways.”

Master Deputy Justin Shriver, South Carroll's school resource officer, looks on as students are dismissed on the first day of school Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018.
Master Deputy Justin Shriver, South Carroll's school resource officer, looks on as students are dismissed on the first day of school Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times file)

Duane Williams, supervisor of school security and emergency management for CCPS, said the SRO program is outstanding and the public sentiment has been positive. Before the program was implemented, parents were calling to say they were afraid to have their kids in the building after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

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“It’s quite baffling to me some jurisdictions can turn 180 degrees that fast,” he said.

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He noted that the community already had a positive relationship with law enforcement and the SRO program helps build that relationship at a young age.

“I think the country and the state needs to think through what the long-term affects will be if they pass any type of legislation to remove SROs from school,” he said. “I don’t think it will be positive affects.”

Mike Fowler, legislation liaison for the county, noted the state bills at Thursday’s Board of Commissioners meeting. He said when the Safe to Learn Act in 2018 came about that led to the SRO program in the state, everyone was all in. It was during a time when there were frequent school shootings that happened across the country. However, since conversations about social justice and equity issues came about, he said people are reconsidering.

Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said one could argue that the SROs are helping with mental health and they may be better than someone sitting behind a desk. He said the program “creates that sorely needed connection to law enforcement.”

Rebecca Gorman, a CCPS parent and educator in Baltimore County, called the SRO program “the very definition of community policing.”

She said the officers redirect students, deescalate situations and creates relationships.

“Their presence is really one of the reasons schools stay so very, very safe,” she said.

Gorman said she has studied the equity disparities and social structures that lead to a school to prison pipeline on a graduate level, and the SRO program puts communities one step closer to solving issues like police brutality.

“The answer, it’s not eliminating the police,” she said. “It’s changing the relationship with the community.”

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