Parents of Harford County Public Schools students last week urged local government, police and school officials to find a way to put a resource officer in every school, from elementary to high school.

“I believe school resource officers are extremely important and it has to happen in every school, elementary, too, because our babies are important,” Morgan Reip, of Abingdon, who has a child in kindergarten, said at a public discussion on March 1 on school safety at John Carroll School in Bel Air. “It has to happen, the funding has to happen.”

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The discussion, put together by the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, was a chance for parents, grandparents and students to ask questions of representatives in law enforcement, the school system and county government about school safety as well as share their concerns and offer suggestions.

It came in response to the Parkland, Fla., shooting Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during which 14 students and three staff members were shot and killed. Nineteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz has been charged in the killings.

“After the horrific shooting in Florida, [in] communities across the country, Harford County included, parents are concerned,” Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said before the discussion began. “It’s about getting the community together, in a town hall type setting and hearing from the community, and to also let them know things that are done maybe they’re not familiar with.”

Demand was so high that tickets for the 1,000 seats available were distributed by the Sheriff’s Office last week in less than 48 hours. Attendance Thursday night was estimated at 450 to 500 people, Sheriff’s Office officials said, adding the rainy weather may have kept some people home.

In addition to showing their support for school resource officers, speakers urged treatment for mental health issues, many of which they said are the root of school violence.

“A lot of ideas address problems when they become problems. Instead, we need to address the problem before it becomes a problem,” Ryan Griffin, a senior in the Harford school system, said.

One way to do that, he said, is to recognize and reward students who make a troubled student feel welcome.

“While a teacher’s help is great, I have not seen anything that helps more than the camaraderie and the help of another student,” Griffin said.

Gary Ambridge, of Bel Air, agreed with the need to provide mental health care for troubled students.

“To really help students, we need school psychologists who have time to work with troubled students, school counselors to help build skills, social workers who can help students, teachers who have time for teaching,” Ambridge said.

Since the Parkland shooting, President Donald Trump has called for allowing school staffers to be armed. But arming teachers with handguns was not an idea supported by many in attendance at the March 1 forum.

“… we already have a law enforcement community here in Harford County that is highly effective,” Sean Comer, of Forest Hill, said. “That we would cast law enforcement officers aside and place our children’s lives in the hands of amateurs, instead of professionals, is nonsense.”

Better security measures are also needed at schools, many parents said.

“We all want to send our children and know they will come home as happy and healthy as they were when we said goodbye,” Sara Baker, of Bel Air, said. “More safety measures need to be added.”

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She said she went to her child’s school, where she was buzzed in after providing her name over the intercom to the office. She is supposed to go directly to the office to show a photo identification, but as soon as she enters the building, she has access to the main corridor of the school and three hallways leading to every part of the building.

“There’s nothing stopping a person from going right past the office,” she said.

One parent said all teachers should be required to carry walkie-talkies to better communicate in the event of an emergency.

Others said metal detectors in schools would prevent students from carrying weapons into schools. So would a ban on backpacks, or a requirement that students carry their books and folders in clear plastic carrying cases.

Threats in schools

Since the Valentine’s Day shooting at the Florida school, local law enforcement agencies and the school system have investigated several possible threats at Harford’s schools. None were deemed credible but officials continued to remind parents and students, “If you see something, say something,” whether it be to a school resource officer, an administrator, a teacher or a parent. The sooner someone knows about the threat the sooner it can be investigated to determine its validity, law enforcement officials have said.

“We have a responsibility as well,” Cheryl Wyngarden, of Bel Air, said. “We teach our children if they hear or see something, they need to say something, to tell us, or a teacher or law enforcement. We as parents need the courage to say something, too, even if it’s our own child.”

Kimberly Doolittle, of Jarrettsville, took the school system to task, however, for its lack of response to a recent threat.

She said her son was getting information about threats at Harford Technical High School, where he attends. The perceived threats prompted a flurry of text messages among worried parents, Doolittle said.

She called the Sheriff’s Office and was told the threats were not credible; so she felt comfortable sending her son to school the next day. She passed along the information to friends and they, too, sent their children to school.

But, she said, the school system “remained silent that night.”

It wasn’t until the next morning that parents got a phone call from the school and it was to reprimand them for “spreading rumors” on social media.

“Harford County Public Schools created an outcome of panic and rumor with its lack of response,” Doolittle said. “We tell students if they see something, say something. I feel if Harford County Public Schools knows something, they should say something, we deserve that consideration and respect.”

SRO support

Gahler and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said they have been discussing expansion of the school resource officer or SRO program, but warned it takes time and money.

A lot of variables have to be considered, Glassman said, including the proximity of middle schools to high schools, such as in northern Harford County where the elementary, middle and high schools are on one campus.

He said one SRO is being added at Magnolia Middle in next fiscal year’s budget, at the request of the sheriff.

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“[Sheriff Gahler] is providing options to look at, like retired professionals, to put in the mix and evaluate it compared to other [ideas],” Glassman said. “It’s a priority.”

Even if funding was available, Gahler cautioned, it takes at least a year to replace a police officer.

“There’s only so much money we have,” he said. “I will make it a goal to expand [the program], but ... it cannot happen overnight.”

He added he hopes additional funding announced Thursday by Gov. Larry Hogan will help support that expansion.

Superintendent Barbara Canavan agreed, and said she would wholeheartedly support SROs in all schools.

She worked in a middle school setting for 19 years with three school resource officers.

“Not only were they consultants for me and my staff, but the relationships they built with students in that building are relationships they will have forever,” Canavan, who’s retiring when her term ends June 30, said. “Those guys worked with our staff and they changed kids’ lives.”

Donoven Brooks, the school system’s director of safety and security since Jan. 2, agreed.

“[The school resource officers] are extremely professional, extremely well trained, but most importantly, I want to assure you, having done this for 23 years, they are ambassadors to education, partners in your children’s education, are ambassadors to safety,” Brooks said.

The Havre de Grace Police Department provides a school resource officer in all four schools — two elementary, one middle and one high — within Havre de Grace city limits.

Elementary school SROs were added after the deadly school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, during which 20 children were killed. Havre de Grace Police Chief Teresa Walter said the community deserved it.

“[Students and staff] not only feel better, but the SROs are very, very important,” Walter said. “The SROs are very much an integral part of our schools.”

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