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Havre de Grace police chief, city leaders opposed to school resource officer bills being considered in Annapolis

Havre de Grace Police Chief Teresa Walter expressed her opposition Monday to several bills before the Maryland General Assembly that she expects will “have a huge impact” on the local school resource officer program.

“Over the years we’ve built positive relationships, not only with the children but with the parents, the school administrators,” Walter said during a City Council meeting, during the time reserved for department heads to give their regular reports to the mayor and council members.

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The Havre de Grace Police Department has had a school resource officer program for about 20 years, with one officer serving the city’s two elementary, one middle and one high school when Walter became chief in 2005.

The program expanded over time, but it ramped up in 2012 after the deadly mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December of that year. Havre de Grace officials dedicated funding to have one officer in each of the four public schools in the city, and they have maintained funding for the SROs since then.

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Walter stressed that the department’s SRO program is not just about law enforcement and school safety and security, but creating opportunities for officers to develop relationships with youths through mentoring, helping them with school work, as well as initiatives such as an annual summer safety camp and an Explorer post, which was established in 2019 for young people in eighth grade through age 21.

The school resource officer program also serves as a way to recruit people into the local police department, and it helps teach young people the importance of community “stewardship” and how law enforcement and other public safety agencies are part of that stewardship, according to the chief.

“I think our school resource officers have had a huge impact on our children and our community,” Walter said.

She emphasized that police officials want young people “to have dialogue with police officers — we want them to share their experiences and have police officers truly help them ... and I would hate to see that change.”

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“If anybody wants to know the value of the SRO program, just go to First Fridays, because those kids flock to those SROs in droves, and it’s just amazing,” Council President David Glenn said.

“They’re not disciplinarians,” he added. “They’re mentors, and they’re building these positive relationships that I think this country needs, so that we respect law enforcement.”

Several bills have been introduced during the General Assembly’s 2021 session that would curtail state funding for local SRO programs and shift it toward school counselors and mental health workers, as well as restrict how police officers can operate on school property.

Senate Bill 245, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Arthur Ellis of Charles County, would — if passed — prohibit a school resource officer from coming into a school unless “summoned” by an administrator in case of an emergency, plus the officer must conceal their firearm “except under certain circumstances,” must wear civilian clothing and they cannot take part in routine student discipline, according to the bill.

That bill had a committee hearing in late January, but no action has been taken on it since then, according to the General Assembly website.

Democratic Del. Gabriel Acevero of Montgomery County is sponsoring House Bill 1089, the “Police–Free Schools Act,” which would prohibit local school systems from contracting with law enforcement agencies to “station police officers or other law enforcement personnel with arrest authority in schools or on school property,” according to the bill.

The bill also requires the governor to appropriate $10 million each year, starting in fiscal 2023, to fund grants that school systems can use to hire counselors, psychologists, social workers and behavioral specialists, as well as coordinators of “restorative approaches programming,” provide “wraparound services” through the school and the community, plus develop “trauma-informed schools.”

Proponents of the bills have said Black and Hispanic students, as well as students with disabilities, have been over-represented in statistics showing the number of youths arrested for offenses in school, and they want to steer young people away from contacts with law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

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, according to data from the Maryland Department of Education. 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 school system’s most recent budget.

During the 2018-2019 school year, the last year that data is available, 14 arrests were made at both Havre de Grace high and middle schools.

The majority of the arrests systemwide in Harford 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.

The bills, if passed, would not affect how Havre de Grace funds its school resource officers, but restricting how officers can operate “changes the whole dynamic” of the program, Walter said.

“We want [children] to see police officers, and we don’t want them to be afraid to approach an officer and just have a conversation,” she said.

A hearing on HB1089 is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, before the House Ways and Means Committee. Havre de Grace officials plan to testify during that hearing, Mayor William T. Martin said.

Martin, who teaches history at Aberdeen Middle School, praised how the SRO at his school has worked with its 1,200 students, noting how the officer has been willing to talk with his class and answer questions on topics such as the Bill of Rights.

“I don’t know what people are thinking, when they say an officer in school is a pipeline to jail,” the mayor said. “I mean, what, are they trying to raise their kids to be criminals?”

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Martin said he has seen SRO programs “do so much good to keep kids out of prison, because the officers aren’t there to arrest kids.”

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“The officers are there help kids make better decisions, to avoid those situations,” he added.

Councilwoman Carolyn Zinner noted that the General Assembly passed legislation in 2018, after the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that February, to fund school resource officer programs across the state, as well as more mental health professionals in schools.

“I would really hope that the legislature really rethinks this, goes back to their original plan that they had approved and passed [three] years ago and not only fund the SROs, but also the behavioral health professionals because I just think that this is a poor reaction,” she said.

Zinner noted that behavioral health staff “would really welcome being part of the team with an SRO to help the children as much as possible.”

“That’s the key, being a team,” Walter said. “That’s what our nation is calling for, a team effort, and it just seems like some of these pieces of legislation are counter-intuitive to that.”

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