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Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, left, and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, second from left, announce Wednesday that three deputies - Senior Deputy Lee Zink, DFC Diana Ciaramellano and Deputy Kathryn Coffin - will be new school resources officers in elementary schools.
Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, left, and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, second from left, announce Wednesday that three deputies - Senior Deputy Lee Zink, DFC Diana Ciaramellano and Deputy Kathryn Coffin - will be new school resources officers in elementary schools. (Erika Butler)

Harford County’s school resource officer program is being expanded into the county’s public elementary schools with the assignment of three new deputies to the 27 schools outside Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace.

“Knowing we are providing for our youngest students to have access to SROs, to be in the elementary schools, is not only life changing for our students, it’s potentially life-saving,” Superintendent Sean Bulson said during a news conference Wednesday outside the Harford County Sheriff’s Office headquarters in Bel Air.

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Bulson, Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler and County Executive Barry Glassman announced the addition of the three deputies, funded through a nearly $382,000 grant from the Maryland Center for School Safety.

Deputy First Class Kathryn Coffin, Deputy First Class Diana Ciaramellano and Senior Deputy Lee Mink will start their new assignments Nov. 16.

The three deputies will split up coverage of the 27 elementary schools geographically, although the specific schools each will be responsible for is still being worked out.

The three new SROs brings the total to 20 in the Sheriff’s Office, Gahler said.

Municipal police departments in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace provide SROs for schools within their city and town boundaries.

“Having small children, we know the fear of other parents with everything going on in the world,” said Ciaramellano, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office for five years, said. "I’m excited to be able to be out there, showing parents we’re there, showing our faces, showing kids they’re safer and help them feel safer and you’re out there.”

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, left, and County Executive Barry Glassman, second from left, announce that three deputies - Senior Deputy Lee Mink, Deputy First Class Diana Ciaramellano and Deputy First Class Kathryn Coffin have been added to the county's school resource officer program. The three will cover the 27 elementary schools outside municipal boundaries.
Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, left, and County Executive Barry Glassman, second from left, announce that three deputies - Senior Deputy Lee Mink, Deputy First Class Diana Ciaramellano and Deputy First Class Kathryn Coffin have been added to the county's school resource officer program. The three will cover the 27 elementary schools outside municipal boundaries. (Erika Butler)

For Coffin, it’s about building relationships with kids.

“Not everything we do has to do with crimes,” she said. “We all live in the community, so to be a part of that and bridge the gap with schools” is something she is looking forward to.

Mink will be coming off 13 years of midnight patrol in northern Harford County. Becoming a school resource officer was an easy decision for him, he said.

“I have three kids in and through the [school] system, it’s a no-brainer, knowing what kids have to deal with today," Zink said.

He’s particularly excited to be at the elementary level.

“For me, I’m the same height as elementary school kids, I’ll be able to look them in the eye,” he joked. “I’m a pretty fun guy, I think I can relate to them.”

The SROs will be responsible for learning the layout of their schools, showing their presence to the administration and students, bridging the gap between police and children, and offering support when needed.

“They will establish those relationships even earlier than middle school as they interact with the children,” Gahler said. “We’ve seen many times children suffer at the hands of some criminal activity or incident outside the school day that they carry into the school the next day.”

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SROs will also deter and solve crimes, though Gahler hopes there will be little of that at the elementary level, he said.

Glassman said it was a “no-brainer” to sign off on the grants, which the county would have to step in to fund if the grant money runs out.

“We do it not only protecting our school children,” Glassman said. “We do it because they are part of our school-based family, there to listen, hear their concerns and really become workers in our school-based community.”

Protecting students is the school system’s first priority, even before educating them, Bulson said.

SROs create relationships in the schools, attending graduations and assemblies, and greeting students at the doors.

“A big part of their mission is to create positive and supportive relationships with students, to help students understand that law enforcement is there to help them be successful and be safe,” Bulson said.

Harford County began putting law enforcement officers in schools in 1998, then known as the Sheriff’s School Policing Team, a reaction to deadly school shootings in Kentucky, Arkansas and Oregon in the late 1990s.

The program, which initially placed six officers in schools, was in place nearly a year prior to the Columbine, Colorado, high school shooting in 1999.

In early 2018, the Sheriff’s Office had deputies assigned to the seven high schools in its jurisdiction as well as Edgewood and Magnolia middle schools.

Following deadly shootings in Parkland, Florida, and St. Mary’s County in 2018, the sheriff’s office expanded the program to include 14 total deputies in the SRO program, assigned to all high schools and middle schools in the sheriff’s jurisdiction, as well as the Alternative Education Program at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen.

Havre de Grace placed school resource officers in its two elementary schools — Havre de Grace and Meadowvale elementary — in January 2013, following the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. It had already had officers in Havre de Grace high and middle schools.

In June, the City of Aberdeen announced a third school resource officer who would be deployed to the city’s three elementary schools — Bakerfield, Hall’s Cross Roads and George D. Lisby at Hillsdale. Aberdeen police already had SROs in place at Aberdeen middle and high school.

The Town of Bel Air has SROs in Bel Air middle and high school.

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