As the Howard County school system and the Board of Education are reexamining the school resource officer program, the union for the district’s administrators has put its support behind keeping police in schools.
In a letter written to Superintendent Michael Martirano and the school board earlier this month, the Howard County Administrators Association’s executive board detailed its position to keep school resource officers — also known as SROs — as well as improvements that can be made to the program.
Robert Motley, HCAA’s vice president and principal at Atholton High School, said removing the program would be a mistake. While he understands the reasons why some want to remove SROs from schools, he believes doing that would be throwing away an opportunity the school system and the police department have to “heal” the relationship between police and some communities.
“There are certain marginalized communities that have negative relationships or feelings about law enforcement. What better way to improve that than through this program?” Motley said.
"We can build in components in this program to help bridge that gap and heal that relationship. What an awesome opportunity for our school system and our police department to collaborate together to forge that. I see the wonderful opportunity that exists. If it’s eliminated, that opportunity is gone.”
The HCAA’s support of SROs comes in the middle of a months-long process to reconsider the program. Following a failed motion to remove SROs in September, the school system has held multiple focus groups, as well as planned a community town hall on Nov. 12 and a potential final vote on Jan. 21.
“I appreciate the voices of our administrators as they are responsible for the safety, security and nurturing of their students every day,” Martirano wrote in an email. “As we continue to review the SRO program, I encourage all stakeholders, including administrators, to remain engaged so we can collaboratively develop a final recommendation that supports our efforts to ensure a safe and nurturing learning environment for all students.”
Nick Novak, HCAA president and principal at Howard High School, said there are multiple reasons — which are outlined in the letter — why HCAA believes SROs should remain in schools.
First, he said teachers and administrators aren’t trained to handle many of the situations SROs deal with in schools — like fights, drug possession and active shooter situations. In those instances, police from outside the school system — as required by state law — would have to respond. The Safe to Learn Act of 2018 requires all school systems to either have SROs or adequate police coverage for all its schools.
“It surprises me that people feel like removing SROs will reduce the number of arrests in schools,” Novak said. “If there’s an infraction that’s in violation of a criminal statute, we have to report it to police. Even if we didn’t have an SRO in the school, we’d have to call police up to the school.”
Novak also said he believes SROs can prevent incidents from happening and, due to their additional training and relationships with students, they can sometimes better deescalate situations than regular police officers can.
“What doesn’t get reported is when our SROs are able to stop something before it even happens,” Novak said. “If a student goes to the SRO because they’ve built that relationship and they’re able to intervene ahead of time, that’s important, too. … When you bring someone from the outside, and this has happened in many of our schools, it makes the situation worse. Sometimes what would be a simple situation with an SRO then escalates without one.”
After the Board of Education’s failed motion last month to remove SROs from schools, Novak sent a survey to the union’s 275 members. About half filled it out, and 82% responded in favor of keeping SROs.
“The support for SROs was not unanimous within HCAA,” said Board of Education member Sabina Taj, one of four members who voted to remove SROs in September. “I think it’s unfortunate that some administrators do not feel they have sufficient mental health and other supports to rely on such that they feel they need to have armed police in schools. The data suggests student learning suffers when SROs are present in the school environment. We must explore alternatives to ensure safety for all children at school.”
The presence of school resource officers in public schools has been one of many topics discussed in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests this past summer following the police shooting of Jacob Blake and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
In June, protesters in Howard County urged the school system and county leaders to reconsider removing SROs from schools in the county. A protest on June 2 outside the AMC Columbia 14 movie theater demanded police be removed from schools entirely, while a rally at Western Regional Park in Cooksville on June 18 asked the county to reevaluate the SRO program. In addition to the rallies, a petition signed by more than 400 former and current Howard County students listed the removal of school resource officers as one of seven demands of the school system.
“I’m not surprised that the debate is happening, given everything that’s happening in our country,” Motley said. “What does surprise me is the extreme. I welcome coming to the table, reexamining roles, looking at training, those kinds of things. I am more than open to having those discussions and engaging that, because in some cases it’s necessary. But I’m surprised about the pendulum shift of just getting rid of them all together.”
While HCAA is in support of SROs in schools, that doesn’t mean the association thinks the program is perfect. Motley said there are multiple ways HCAA would like to see the SRO program improved, including increasing diversity, continuing restorative practices and implicit bias training, and having principal involvement in the selection of SROs.
“Sometimes it just isn’t a fit and it doesn’t work out,” Motley said. “Having administrators involved in that decision, as to who is assigned to your school, is a way to make sure a mismatch doesn’t take place.”
The school system defines the 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 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 different middle schools. There are no SROs in elementary schools; however, elementary and middle school administrators can receive coverage and assistance from police when needed.
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. During a board meeting on Sept. 24, student member Zach Koung, who raised the motion during the Sept. 10 meeting, said those 12 schools were the ones with the highest percentage of Black students in the county.
The original vote to remove school resource officers from schools on Sept. 10 was put on the table by Koung, who is a senior at Howard High. Chairperson Mavis Ellis, the first Black woman to serve in that role for the Howard County Board of Education, Jen Mallo, Taj and Koung voted to remove SROs. The other four members all said they were not prepared for the vote, including Vice Chairperson Vicky Cutroneo, who said she was “blindsided.” Christina Delmont-Small and Cutroneo voted against removing SROs, while Chao Wu and Kirsten Coombs abstained.
Novak and Motley both said HCAA members were contacting them about the motion and were confused that it was happening without administrator input.
“I think one of the reasons we were being contacted by our members,” said Motley, who has also been a principal at Glenwood Middle and Patuxent Valley Middle, “was that the discussion was taking place, but those that interact with the SROs most — the principals, the administrators — were not part of it.”
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The next step in the SRO discussion process is a virtual town hall hosted by the school system from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Nov. 12.