County looks to get School Resource Officer program off the ground

Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees talks with Francis Scott Key High School principal Joseph Guerra after deputies from the Sheriff's Office were assigned to provide security at county schools March, 27, 2018.
Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees talks with Francis Scott Key High School principal Joseph Guerra after deputies from the Sheriff's Office were assigned to provide security at county schools March, 27, 2018. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

His department is receiving the largest increase in the upcoming Carroll County budget, and Sheriff Jim DeWees is spending the majority of that on one goal: Get the county's School Resource Officer program off the ground.

After the St. Mary's County shooting in March, the State of Maryland mandated that jurisdictions protect their schools by way of an SRO program or "adequate law enforcement coverage."


"The St. Mary's County sheriff and I are very good friends," DeWees said this week, "so I've been able to communicate with him on lessons learned there.

"The good thing about the school security detail we implemented after the St. Mary's County incident," he said, "we were already in talks of putting deputies in the schools and trying to figure that out quickly. We just met quickly, and I decided to just go ahead and do it and try and budget it, and at the end of the fiscal year I would reconcile and the county could support reconciliation if I went over my allotment of overtime or money."

But that's just for getting trained officers to the high schools and ramping up police coverage of middle and elementary schools this year.

By next year, $1.7 million will have gone into getting 10 trained SROs in the high schools, in accordance with state law. Then 10 more SROs will be brought in for the following year.

And DeWees has Col. Larry Suther, who spent 35 years with the Baltimore County Police Department, heading up the program.

"The Baltimore County Police Dept. … has probably one of the largest SRO programs in the nation with the amount of SROs they deploy daily," DeWees said. "So we have a very good relationship with them, [and] we are using them as much as we possibly can to get our program up."

Seasoned officers who are interested in getting the extra training and working with students will be put in the schools for now.

They will then be replaced with new recruits — and the vetting process will be a strict one for everyone, Suther said.

Under Suther as supervisors will be Sgt. Phil Lawrence and Cpl. Jeremy Holland, who have already been involved in extensive planning for the SRO program.

"Jeremy comes with a lot of background working with students because he was one of our DARE folks for quite some time," Suther said Thursday. "He works with Camp COPS, he does a lot of work with that. They [both] come with really diverse experience."

Lawrence "is an excellent SWAT guy," he said. "He got commended a couple years ago — he shot a guy out in Union Bridge who had a woman on a bridge with a knife to her. He stopped that. So really we are really proud of those guys. They're really sharp folks."

While the planning for the SRO program is coming from the Sheriff's Office, the Carroll County Board of Education has also been involved in the discussions so they can get schools prepared for the upcoming changes.

BOE President Bob Lord said Thursday that although the county's schools have had a great relationship with the police force regularly checking in on schools, the SRO program is definitely going to require adjustments as it requires policy-making and its own budget.

"We've been very fortunate throughout the years that we haven't needed a large police presence in our schools," Lord said. "So as we go down this road and figure out early what this is going to entail, it will be interesting. With all the events that have happened around the country, too, we are actually one of the last counties in the state that did not have SRO programs."


DeWees and Suther said Thursday that it's true they cannot predict what will be required for complete SRO training in compliance with the state down the road, as Maryland's program is a work in progress just like Carroll County's. But they do know a lot of what will be involved.

"You have to be certified as an instructor [to teach a Street Law class]," Suther said, "so that's one more school they have to go through. They have to attend active shooter training and successfully pass that, and [the School Safety Council] is still working on developing [what] is probably something … about understanding the school's culture, being able to interact with students and teachers, and do it directly.

"I always tell the students it's the toughest job in policing if it's done right because of the different hats you have to wear," he said. "[You have to be able to work] with the students and at the same time understand you may have to jump into a crisis at a moment's notice and make that crisis stop so it doesn't grow bigger and you don't see a large count of casualties."

However, everyone agrees the issue is about more than preventing tragedies like what happened in Newtown, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida.

"The same officer will be assigned at that school," Lord said. "It's more of, 'This is a friendly face' — someone that can get to know the student someone that can build a relationship with the students and with the community. If the situation arises, hopefully that police officer will be able to respond appropriately.

"So this really, I know on the surface everybody goes, 'Oh we're going to have an armed person in ths school,' " Lord said. "It's really a tiny little piece of it; it's having that presence, having that community relationship as well as that relationship with the students that's most important."

Lord said he also hopes to see more proactive measures taken to mitigate violent crises in schools.

"I feel the SRO program is only one approach," he said. "You know that is a reactive approach. I think we need to be a little bit more proactive, perhaps putting more behavioral specialists in our schools, or even bringing back our crisis counselor program.

"Our student safety is our top priority," Lord said.