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Legislation to limit, restrict school resource officers meets opposition from Harford sheriff

Legislation that would restrict school resource officers’ ability to work in schools and redirect their state funding toward other mental health services has been introduced into both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly, drawing criticism from Harford County’s sheriff.

Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said the bills would put children at risk while legislators contend that the presence of school resource officers in schools have harmful effects on the populations they serve and leads to disproportionate arrests of students of color.

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Two separate bills in the House of Delegates and state Senate would seek to redirect state funding for school resource officers to other mental health services and mostly disallow the officers entering school buildings unless summoned by a school official to respond to violence or the threat of violence.

Collectively, the bills would effectively end school resource officer programs in the state, Gahler said. The Harford County Sheriff’s Office has 16 such deputies out in schools during a normal year. The sheriff’s office was early to implement SROs, Gahler said; its program began in the late 1990s with federal funding.

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The proposed legislation is a step backward for children’s safety, Harford sheriff said, and lawmakers have mistaken SROs’ roles in schools.

The officers are not “dressed in riot gear, waking through the hallways looking for someone to arrest,” Gahler said. Instead, they are trained in conflict resolution and de-escalation. The officers also deter crimes simply by being in schools, he said, in addition to being available to respond to a crime. The legislation is, in his view, “crazy.”

“It’s just incomprehensible that we would play politics with our children’s safety,” Gahler said.

After a series of high-profile school shootings around the country, including in Parkland, Florida, the Maryland legislature passed a 2018 law mandating SROs in public schools. Harford County residents, in a public input session hosted at John Carroll School, said they wanted police in all the county’s public schools, and County Executive Barry Glassman funded an increase in the sheriff’s office personnel before the 2018 legislation passed, Gahler said.

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For the period of July 2020 to June 2021, Harford County received $358,629 in grant funding from the Maryland Center for School Safety, sheriff’s office spokesperson Cristie Hopkins said. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020, the office’s school safety division was budgeted about $3.35 million. That number rose to nearly $3.64 million in the current fiscal year.

If passed, the House Bill would redirect $10 million in state funding for SROs to mental health counselors and other services.

The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Arthur Ellis, a Charles County Democrat, would bar SROs from entering school buildings unless they are given permission, needed to participate in “specialized instruction” allowed by school officials or needed to use the restroom. It would also disallow SROs from participating in “the routine school discipline of a student.”

Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, the House bill’s sponsor said that the time was right to introduce the legislation in view of the conversation surrounding police reform, but the motivation for the bill predates more recent calls to defund the police and is a longer standing question of priorities.

The data is clear that Black and Latino students are being arrested at a disproportionate rate to their white counterparts, Wilkins said. This has been an ongoing issue for years, and the debate over school resource officers has been alive since she joined the legislature in 2017.

“We know that that has harmful effects for children, so that is the impetus for this legislation,” the Montgomery County Democrat said.

At a hearing on the House Bill, Wilkins said that many students are arrested for minor crimes and thrust into the criminal justice system when they could be better helped with counseling. Wilkins said over 3,000 students were arrested statewide in the 2018-2019 school year alone. Black students accounted for 56% of arrests in the state, she said.

“We cannot continue to fund and champion a program in our schools that criminalizes our Black and brown students and students with disabilities and call that ‘the interests of public safety,’” Wilkins said.

Wilkins said she believes she had “overwhelming support” among fellow Democrats in the House and on the Ways and Means Committee. Because the legislature leans heavily in Democrats’ favor, bipartisan support is not necessary, but Wilkins welcomed the idea of Republicans lending support to the legislation.

According to data from the Maryland Department of Education, Black students in Harford County made up the majority of arrests and referrals to Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services in the past few years. Of 625 county students arrested or referred between 2015 and 2019, just over half were Black. About 20% of the student population in the 2019-2020 school year were Black, according to student data included in the fiscal 2021 budget.

The majority of the arrests were “paper arrests,” meaning officers made a referral or request for charges to juvenile services. Much fewer were physical arrests. Most of the arrests were made on school property, and Aberdeen and Edgewood schools often saw the highest numbers of arrests and referrals.

Physical arrests, according to the data, numbered less than 50 between the 2015 and 2019 school terms. According to its own figures, between the 2017 and 2019 school years, the sheriff’s office physically arrested fewer than 30 juveniles. The office wrote significantly more referrals than it made arrests.

Hopkins said the office could not speak to the department of education’s data because those figures were not supplied by the sheriff’s office. That data also includes other municipal police agencies, over which the sheriff’s office has no say or authority.

Cpl. Robert Kovacs, a supervisor to the sheriff’s office’s SRO program, said deputies become fixtures in the schools where they are placed. Because they see many of the same faces day-to-day, they treat students differently than a patrol deputy would. They also work with counselors to address student needs and try to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system as much as possible.

“I know the next day or a few days later I’m gonna be with that student again in that building, so I still need to interact with that person and have a good relationship,” Kovacs said. “A patrol deputy who comes in and handles a fight is never going to see that kid again.”

SROs often provide counselling and mentorship to students, giving them a positive law-enforcement experience while also providing security, Kovacs said.

Galher questioned why the house bill, shorthanded to the “Counselors Not Cops Act,” diverts funding from SROs to counselors when the legislature could find the money for more counselors and retain the same support for SROs. While he has not formally spoken with the local school system about it, Gahler said he expects the ratio of counselors to SROs to be lopsided.

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“It kind of makes it sound like we do not have any counselors at schools,” Gahler said. “I would be willing to bet that, we have one SRO in every school, there are a heck of a lot more counselors that service the needs of that student body.”

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Spokesperson for the Aberdeen Police Department Will Reiber said that SROs are carefully picked and trained in Aberdeen. He said they have been received positively by the community and helped mentor and guide students since the program’s advent.

Reiber said Aberdeen’s SROs are funded entirely by the city’s taxpayers, so the House Bill would not affect the department. Without SROs, he said, patrol cops would be forced to respond to situations at schools. While they are capable of doing that, the department tries to be more careful with juveniles and emphasizes other mediation. The SROs are specially trained to deal with school situations, he said, in a way patrol deputies are not.

“We are not there to handle all the day to day minor disruptions, kids acting out of turn,” he said. “We are not just there to throw our badge and gun around to enforce school rules.”

In a statement, Superintendent of Harford County Public Schools Sean Bulson said the system valued its partnership with the sheriff’s office and municipal police forces that provided SROs. He said that the community requested SROs at the elementary level, illustrating that families see the value of officers in school.

“We have relied on SRO’s in HCPS to build relationships with students and mentor students, as well as provide a sense of protection and security,” Bulson said. “I will continue to advocate for their involvement in our schools as HCPS sees the intrinsic value they bring to our students, our schools, and consequently, our community.”

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