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Howard County Executive Calvin Ball backs proposed changes to school resource officer program

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (front) and Police Chief Lisa Myers put their support behind keeping and changing the school system's school resource officer program during a press conference on Wednesday, April 21.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (front) and Police Chief Lisa Myers put their support behind keeping and changing the school system's school resource officer program during a press conference on Wednesday, April 21. (Photo courtesy of Howard County government)

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball on Wednesday put his support behind keeping — but changing — the public school system’s program to have police officers in some buildings.

At a Wednesday morning news conference, Ball said he supports the school resource officer program with several proposed changes — including body-worn cameras and removing police from middle schools — included in an agreement between the school district and the county police department.

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Ball does not have decision-making authority on the existence of the school resource officer, or SRO, program, but his support for the revisions could sway some members on the Board of Education, which is evenly divided on the topic, to vote next month in favor of having SROs in schools.

“I wholeheartedly believe that our community can find the right balance [in the SRO program] to preserve safety, promote equity and maintain our county’s inclusive values and academic success,” Ball said outside the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

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The agreement — formally called a memorandum of understanding — will be voted on by the Board of Education on May 11. While not technically a vote to keep or remove the SRO program, the motion will essentially be just that, since SROs cannot return to school buildings without the board voting to approve the agreement.

“I thank Dr. Ball for sharing his and [the police department’s] thoughts on the SRO program,” Board of Education Chair Chao Wu wrote in an email after the news conference. “The school system and the Board of Education have been working collaboratively with all stakeholders to find a workable solution.”

The changes to the program in the agreement, which isn’t available yet but will be when it’s voted on, include removing school resource officers from middle schools but keeping them in high schools and body-worn cameras for the officers. Other changes include switching to a “soft” uniform — polos and khaki pants and instead of the traditional police garb — to “enhance approachability,” taking SROs out of school-based disciplinary infractions, equity training and an annual review of the memorandum of understanding.

Ball’s stance Wednesday comes a day after the verdict of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder in the killing George Floyd — a case that drew nationwide interest following the viral 9-minute video of Floyd’s death last spring and the Black Lives Matter protests it sparked.

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“It is worrisome that we have another generation who, for many of them, their only interaction with the police may be what they’re seeing on the news when they see these atrocities,” Ball said. “There is an opportunity to foster better relationships and a better understanding between the police, the community and our youth so that hopefully we can grow the next generation to not feel as anxious and afraid as current and past generations when it comes to police interactions.”

Board of Education Vice Chair Jen Mallo said Wednesday that she also supports removing SROs from middle schools as “an important first step.”

Mallo voted to remove the SRO program in a motion that failed in September, and her motion in January set up the current structure that requires approval of the revised agreement to allow school resource officers back in buildings.

“I believe the county executive provided some important recommendations for the Board of Education to consider about changes to the SRO program in Howard County schools,” Mallo wrote in an email. “I look forward to working with my colleagues to address the community concerns with school resource officers.”

Howard County Police Chief Lisa Myers and Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson also spoke during the event Wednesday to put their support behind the revised program.

Myers, the first African American woman to lead the county’s police department, said it is important to keep the program because she believes SROs in Howard County focus on “prevention and intervention” to help “keep kids out of the system.”

“I believe it is critical now more than ever to bridge gaps that may exist between police and young people, particularly our young students of color,” Myers said. “The SROs in Howard County focus on restorative justice and help change behaviors that might otherwise lead to involvement in the criminal justice system.”

Gibson, the first African American state’s attorney for Howard County, provided local data about juvenile referrals that shows from March 2019 to March 2020 only 9.4% of referrals came from school resource officers. The vast majority of referrals, he said, come from community members.

“This is not to say that the school-to-prison pipeline is a myth; rather, it is a very real thing with a monstrous impact on communities and children. But the most recent evidence we have does not seem to support its existence in our community,” Gibson said. “County Executive Calvin Ball’s proposals seem to strike an appropriate balance in the valid concerns on both sides of the SRO argument.”

Having police officers in county schools has been a contentious topic of conversation in Howard County since the youth-led racial justice protests last summer, and the board has discussed and voted on the program multiple times since September.

The original motion, raised by student member of the board Zach Koung in September, surprised multiple board members and failed 4-2-2. Koung’s failed motion, however, sparked future board discussions, town halls and focus groups about the SRO program.

The school system defines resource officers as “police officers who assist the school administration in analyzing law enforcement problems in schools, investigating criminal incidents and building positive relationships with students and staff while providing a safe school environment and deterrence to crime.” The officers are paid for out of the police department’s budget, not the school system’s.

The program, which was established in 1996 after the death of a staff member who experienced a medical emergency while intervening in a fight, currently has 19 SROs — one for all 12 public high schools and the Homewood Center, and six officers who split 12 middle schools. There are no SROs in elementary schools; however, elementary and middle school administrators can receive coverage and assistance from police when needed.

“In many instances, our school resource officers serve as a valuable part of the unique fabric of our schools and community here in Howard County,” Ball said Wednesday.

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The 12 middle schools that split six resource officers are: Mayfield Woods, Patuxent Valley, Wilde Lake, Harper’s Choice, Lake Elkhorn, Oakland Mills, Murray Hill, Hammond, Thomas Viaduct, Elkridge Landing, Bonnie Branch and Ellicott Mills. Last fall, Koung questioned the selection of those schools and noted that those 12 schools are the ones with the highest percentage of Black students among the county’s middle schools.

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The changes, if they’re approved by the school board, would mean that the program would have 13 SROs — one for all 12 high schools and the Homewood Center — instead of 19.

A month after the original motion, the Howard County administrators union supported keeping the school resource officer program.

“There are certain marginalized communities that have negative relationships or feelings about law enforcement,” Robert Motley, the union’s vice president and principal at Atholton High School, said late last year. “What better way to improve that than through this program?”

In January, the board approved motions that determined no SROs would be in school buildings until a new agreement was forged. So, even now as about half the district’s students are back in buildings at least two days a week for hybrid learning, police officers are not with them.

A month later, the board narrowly approved adding $2.2 million to its proposed fiscal 2022 budget for 22 “safety and security” positions — including 18 mental health therapists and four alternative education teachers — to assist the SRO program. That option was slightly preferred by the board compared to the other option, which would have removed the SRO program, added 36 security assistants and cost $4.7 million.

Because the motions pertained to the budget, Koung couldn’t vote, but he will be able to vote on the motion about the agreement next month. Student members in Howard County can vote on most topics except those involving redistricting, personnel, legal issues, the budget and “other restricted matters,” according to the school system’s website.

School system spokesperson Brian Bassett said Wednesday that Superintendent Michael Martirano will present the new agreement, which includes the changes presented by Ball, to the school board during its May 11 meeting.

“We appreciate the county executive’s and police chief’s continued collaboration over these last several months as we’ve gathered community input and considered changes to the SRO program,” Bassett wrote in an email.

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