An additional $1.2 million has been included in Harford County’s budget for the next fiscal year to fund placing a school resource officer in each middle school, as well as to fund additional security measures in all county public schools.
The Town of Bel Air also will add money to its budget in order to hire a full-time school resource officer for Bel Air Middle School.
As those new school resource officers are trained, the county, Sheriff’s Office and school system will look at the best way to provide additional security in the elementary schools, County Executive Barry Glassman, Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler and Superintendent Barbara Canavan said during a joint announcement on school security initiatives in Bel Air Tuesday morning.
“The children in our schools are our most precious possessions and we want them to come to a welcoming place where they can be embraced, where they can receive instruction that will make them good citizens and help them to build good character, but at the same time be safe. That is a very big challenge for us in this world,” Canavan said. “This partnership has been working to ensure that Harford County children are safe and that their parents can rest easy that they are.”
During a public town hall meeting about local school security held March 1 at The John Carroll School in Bel Air, a common theme was the need for more school resource officers, Gahler said.
“The county executive, the superintendent and I all heard that message, and I am thankful the county executive found funding to staff up that program,” the sheriff said. “This is a huge first step.”
Of the $1.2 million, $773,000 will be allocated to expand the school resource officer program, allowing the Sheriff’s Office to hire seven new deputies as deputies already with the agency transfer into the specialized school program.
The expanded funding will put SROs at Bel Air Middle, Fallston Middle, North Harford Middle, Patterson Mill Middle and Southampton Middle, as well as the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen, according to ithe county.
The county already funds SROs at Edgewood Middle and Magnolia Middle.
Funding for SROs at schools in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace come from their respective municipal budgets.
Aberdeen already has SROs in its middle and high schools, and Havre de Grace has an SRO in each school in the city: Havre de Grace High, Havre de Grace Middle, Havre de Grace Elementary and Meadowvale Elementary. None of the other 32 public elementary schools has an SRO assigned to it on a daily basis.
In Bel Air, town administrator Jesse Bane said the town has allocated money in its upcoming budget to hire a full-time school resource officer for Bel Air Middle School. The SRO assigned to Bel Air High School also visits each of the other schools in town limits, including three private schools: John Carroll, St. Margaret and Harford Day, according to town officials.
The county funding will also allow the sheriff to hire one corporal and full-time sergeant to oversee the SRO unit, Gahler said. The SROs currently in place are overseen by one corporal and a part-time sergeant.
“This will allow us to have a sole sergeant dedicated to the security and safety of 14 public schools that will be under our umbrella,” he said.
Gahler said he will “do everything we can, everything humanly possible” to get the new SROs in place by the start of the 2018-19 school year in September, but realistically they won’t be in the schools until the start of 2019 because of the time it takes to train them.
The rest of the $1.2 million, $425,000, will be provided to the school system for security measures.
The Harford County Board of Education requested $100,000 for bi-directional amplifiers that will improve radio coverage for SROs and other public safety personnel and $325,000 for school security camera upgrades.
The county is also waiting to see what portion it receives of additional funding in the state budget, Glassman said. How it’s spent depends on to what agency it’s allocated. If it’s all dedicated to schools , the county executive has no control over how it’s spent, he said.
The sheriff, executive and superintendent will also begin to look at how to best improve security at the elementary level, they said during the announcement.
“We need to look and see what works best at the elementary school level,” Glassman said.
That might mean placing SROs at elementary schools, which could cost as much as $7 million. Or it could mean using retired police officers who work part-time embedded in schools in plain clothes.
There are who believe that having a uniformed police officer with a gun isn’t good for elementary schools, Glassman said.
Gahler said an SRO at every elementary school would also be a “great fiscal undertaking.”
It’s already difficult to hire deputies and with all police agencies looking for new officers, the pool to draw from is becoming smaller and smaller, he said.
“We will continue to work with the school system, county executive and all partners to look to the future of the school system, and how to keep our elementary schools safe even though they won’t have an assigned SRO,” Gahler said.
Bel Air schools
Bane, the Bel Air administrator, said it wasn’t easy to come up with funding to hire an additional officer, which he estimates will cost $70,000 the first year in FY 2019 when the SRO will not be considered full-time. The second year estimated is about $120,000 to $140,000, which will drop back by the third year, Bane said.
A former sheriff who spent 42 years with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, Bane said it has been his goal since he joined the town to expand its SRO program. A decision by Glassman not to delay on funding for middle school SROs “caused us to move the timeline a little more quickly,” Bane said.
“It’s a very difficult challenge for us when the commissioners don’t want to look at a tax increase,” he said. Bane submitted his proposed FY 2019 budget to the town commissioners Monday – which actually reduces overall spending from current levels while keeping existing tax rates.
He pointed out, however, that one more SRO is not the end.
“Five schools remain in town that deserve the same level of increased protection,” Bane said. “To provide that will be an expensive proposition.”
But the bottom line can’t be a factor when it comes to students’ safety and security, he said.
“The citizens must know it will require their will and commitment to get this done,” Bane said.
He also reminded the public, however, not to get lulled into a false sense of security just because middle and high schools have SROs. Criminals, he said, are aware of the changes and are working one step ahead to figure out how to get around them. Other methods will be needed.
“They will take time and they will take money, but the safety of our children must be a priority,” Bane said.
Role of SROs
Canavan, who is retiring in three months, said that in her years in Harford County Public Schools, no one has ever said they could not help with school security.
The government, politicians, teachers and parents have all united to make sure children are safe, she said.
“SROs are not there to punish students, they’re not there to arrest students. They’re there to build relationships with students and the community so that everyone understands that there needs to be order, and there needs to be consequences sometimes,” Canavan said. “But most important is, there needs to be someone in law enforcement children and adults can go to, and that they can trust in. That is the biggest role SROs play in our schools.”
The security and advice she has received from law enforcement as principal and assistant principal over the years “could not be replaced by anyone else.”
The best way to prevent an incident like the shooting in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14 or in St. Mary’s County last month, is to know the children, Canavan said, drawing on her 48 years of experience as an educator.
It doesn’t matter the role — parent, teacher, police officer, therapist, someone at the Boys and Clubs, she said.
“We need to know who they are, and we really need to recognize when there is trauma there, when their emotions are in an upheavel,” Canavan said. “I think that’s probably the best detection, and then take care of them, whoever they happen to be, whether it’s a 6-year-old in front of you or an 18-year-old in front of you. Everybody has to converge … to do what’s best for that child to make sure emotionally they are buoyant.”
Cameras, SROs, security all are important, she said, but children need to be embraced.
Whatever venue children are in, the teachers, parents and other leaders need to become acquainted with those children.