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Police, Howard High staff are investigating use of force after ‘alarming’ lunchroom incident that was captured on video

Howard County school Superintendent Michael Martirano said Tuesday that school system staff are working with police to investigate what he has called an “alarming” video showing staff members at Howard High School holding down and hitting a student in the cafeteria on Dec. 2.

Michael Martirano, Howard County Public School System superintendent
Michael Martirano, Howard County Public School System superintendent (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The video, which was widely shared on social media, shows three adults, an administrator dressed in a suit and two others in uniforms, holding down a student on the floor of the Howard High cafeteria. One of the adults in uniform punches the student in the head twice and holds onto his hair while the other adult appears to hold the student’s arms down. A third adult in uniform, with the words “police” lettered on his back, holds down the student’s feet. The incident occurred as students were sitting a few feet away eating lunch.

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Sherry Llewellyn, spokeswoman for Howard County police, has said staff members intervened after a student assaulted several others in the lunch room.

Martirano said the school system’s Safety and Security and School Management and Instructional Leadership staff are working with the county police department to review the video footage and investigate the use of force in the incident. Howard High’s school resource officer (SRO) and school security assistant, who were involved in the incident shown on the video, will not be assigned to any school while the investigation is ongoing, he said.

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SROs are armed county police department employees who work daily inside the county’s high schools, under a memorandum of understanding between the school system and the police department. One security assistant is assigned to each of the county’s 12 high schools. They are unarmed and are employed and trained by the school system, with assistance provided by the police department and other agencies, according to Jahantab Siddiqui, chief administrative officer with the school system.

In June, the school board voted to retain SROs in Howard high schools and approved the memorandum with the police department. The memorandum includes plans to train SROs in areas such as anti-racism, cultural proficiency, de-escalation practices, disability awareness, implicit bias and trauma-informed care.

The Dec. 2 incident caused Howard High, the county’s most populated school with nearly 2,000 students, to go into a temporary lockdown.

“This incident involving a student, Howard County Public School System staff and Howard County Police Department staff, especially so soon after the Michigan high school tragedy, generated a heightened level of concern in our county and we must acknowledge that first and foremost,” Martirano said during the Tuesday school board meeting. “I want to assure the board, our community and students that our student services staff are available to support students, families and staff as they process this event.”

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Martirano said the school system will take action in the coming weeks by meeting with all school administrators, local and state partners, including the Maryland Center for School Safety and leaders from the Council of Elders, NAACP Howard County and the African American Community Roundtable.

Additionally, all security personnel and building administrators will participate in midyear professional development seminars, including training and retraining as needed on the school system policies and procedures. Staff in the Safety and Security and Legal offices also will conduct a review of the school system’s safety and security protocols.

“The safety and well-being of our students is of utmost importance to me and we are committed to ensuring that every school remains a safe space for our children,” Martirano said.

Cory Pollitt of Ellicott City has sons in ninth and 11th grades at Howard High School. She said her younger son fled the cafeteria believing there was an active shooter, after officials told him to run.

They found out later that there was no shooter, but she said the school should have followed up with students directly about the incident the next day.

“I’m rather disturbed by the fact that kids at the time ran from school thinking there was an active shooting going on,” she said. “I think the discussion that there was no gun and that it was a rumor is great news, but that still doesn’t change things as far as the trauma that kids went through in running and being told to run.”

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