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Carroll County Times Opinion

Vigliotti: School resource officers protect, build rapport with students; program should be saved | COMMENTARY

There are some legislators in Annapolis who wrongly want to end the use of school resource officers in Maryland.

Those opposed to school resource officers (SROs) argue that a uniformed, police presence in schools is intimidating to students, leading to arrests and a life of prison. They question the real purpose of these officers, and argue that more counseling services would be a better use of funding. What, they assert, is the use of SROs?

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Common sense answers their question: SROs are there to protect students.

SROs form a part of a community: officers get to know schools, teachers, administrators, and especially, students themselves. Building relationships with individuals at this level builds trust between schools and law enforcement agencies; and those relationships help law enforcement agencies to better respond to their needs. As Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees explained to me, “We put a lot of thought into what deputy we place at each of these schools based on the needs of those individual schools.”

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Rather than intimidating students, the rapport which is built helps students, in their formative years, to trust the SRO — and indeed, better trust law enforcement as a whole. That trust translates beyond school hours, and beyond the school years where lessons and experiences of youth are carried into adulthood.

DeWees noted that this sort of thing “can’t be quantified, but has to be seen when kids run up to officers at carnivals or events, and in how they interact with officers outside of school.”

School board member Ken Kiler expounded on this, explaining to me that the program has enabled students to interact with SROs “on a daily basis, and to deal with law enforcement in a proactive way” with the program “actually being a deterrent to problems.”

WBALTV.com confirms that statewide, “SROs have been busy, according to the school safety tip line” where, of 432 calls received, 14.1% were about assault, 9.7% were about bullying and cyber bullying, 7.0% were about drug distribution, and 6.5% were about planned school attacks.

SROs are likewise not there with the intent to intimidate or arrest anyone. They are there to ensure safety, and to be already present on the scene should trouble appear. That arrests have happened — 30 of them in Carroll in the 2018-2019 school year, and other counties with more than 200 — demonstrates the need and purpose for these officers.

Among those who recognize their purpose and importance is Sen. Justin Ready. “How do we make students safer by removing officers from our schools?” he asks. “It’s nonsensical to suggest that, or to imply that officers restraining out-of-control students is somehow to blame for people going to prison instead of their own poor choices. You can’t say you’re for safe schools and oppose SROs with a straight face.”

While counseling, too, is essential, replacing SROs with more counselors doesn’t address everything. Dr. Steven Lockard, superintendent of Carroll County Public Schools, underscored to me not only the importance of counseling and mental health services, but also of SROs. He explained that “there are times when a student may go to an SRO instead of a counselor or another staff member — it all really all depends on the situation, the relationship that has been established, and the urgency of something like a safety issue or related concern. Just as importantly, our SROs also know when to refer someone who has come to them to the counselor or administrator, depending on the issue — and there is great communication between our SROs and school teams in this capacity all the time.”

It is further important those SROs are present in schools, in uniforms, with every means available to protect students. DeWees elaborated on this point. “Uniforms are not only about professional appearance, but serve as deterrents, and are easy to identify in dangerous situations where students and teachers will be looking for direction. And SROs need all the tools available to them on their toolbelts to help deescalate bad situations.”

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But certain legislators seem to discount all of this.

Should Annapolis move to end SROs, Commissioner Stephen Wantz says Carroll is ready to respond. “It boggles my mind that just a few short years ago this was one of the most important initiatives put forth by legislators and now, all of a sudden, in a short period of time, it is perceived to be negative. … If this absurd bill is passed, I will do all I can to work with my colleagues and Carroll County Public Schools to maintain this priceless program here in Carroll.”

Commissioner Wantz is right to refer to the SRO program as “priceless”. Because ultimately, it isn’t about social movements or ideology or partisanship. It’s about students and their safety. As DeWees summed up: “I don’t go to work each day and make decisions on what I think is politically correct, I make decisions based on experience and what I think is right for the very people that my deputies and I swore to protect.”

Joe Vigliotti, a contributor to The Flip Side and a Taneytown city councilman, writes from Taneytown. His column appears every other Friday. Email him through his website at www.jvigliotti.com.


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