Advertisement
Howard County Times
Howard County

Howard’s school resource officers now wear body cameras. Here’s what you need to know about new safety measures this year.

This school year, all 13 of the Howard County Police Department officers who work in public high schools are equipped with body-worn cameras, the latest in a series of major changes to the SRO program during the last 18 months.

“[Body-worn cameras] will improve safety, save money and provide more accountability for all in our community,” said County Executive Calvin Ball at an Aug. 15 news conference, announcing the launch of the program. Ball, a Democrat, is seeking reelection this fall.

Advertisement

School resource officers — who are posted at all 12 high schools plus the Homewood Center — will avoid recording educational activities to the extent possible and only activate cameras “when necessary for law enforcement purposes,” according to HCPSS.

“Law enforcement purposes” refers “to situations in which the officer is interacting with students or staff related to a specific incident of concern that warrants police involvement,” said police spokesperson Sherry Llewellyn in an email. This means officers will not activate cameras as they go about their standard school days interacting with students and staff in hallways.

Advertisement

“[Body-worn cameras] provide an unvarnished feedback of any event and enhance recall and review for our officers,” wrote Ian Rifield, director of security, emergency preparedness and response for the school system. SROs are employed by the police department, not HCPSS.

While the adoption of body cameras is happening department-wide, their use by SROs was outlined in a memorandum of understanding approved by the Board of Education in June 2021. The MOU, which governs the relationship between SROs and the school system, also removed police from middle schools and implemented a “dressed down” daily uniform, among other systemic changes.

“The MOU was a very collaborative effort with the school system and has been successful, including the ‘soft uniforms,’” Llewellyn said. “So far, everything is going well with the new BWC program.”

With the elimination of six officers who split assignments across the county’s middle schools, there are now 13 total SROs.

Advertisement

The reforms, endorsed by Ball, came more than a year after a petition signed by more than 400 current and former Howard County students listed demands, including removal of SROs, to address structural racism in the school system. In September 2020, a school board motion to end the SRO program failed, but was followed by a series of town halls and focus groups to discuss the future of SROs.

“I definitely think [the changes] are a step in the right direction,” said Abisola Ayoola, 16, a junior at Wilde Lake High School and the student member on the Board of Education. “In past experiences, SROs have acted [on] students of color at disproportionate rates. I feel like anything that amends that disparity is good and better for students.”

Of 72 students arrested during the 2018-2019 school year, 63.9% were Black, according to an HCPSS report. Black students accounted for 24% of the school system’s population that year. All but eight of those student arrests were made by SROs.

After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, SROs were absent for the entire 2020-2021 school year, before returning in fall 2021 under the new MOU.

Howard County Times: Top stories

Howard County Times: Top stories

Weekdays

Daily highlights from Howard County's number one source for local news.

According to Howard County police, the main goal of the program is to “build positive relationships with students and staff while providing a safe school environment and deterrence to crime.” In addition to overseeing emergency planning and response at schools, SROs run a variety of after-hours youth programming and summer camps.

Advertisement

While SROs handle criminal activity, as opposed to student disciplinary issues, arrests are a “last resort” and officers focus on diversionary strategies, according to Maj. Justin Baker, who oversees the police department’s youth division and the SRO program.

The Howard County SROs webpage states more than 80% of arrests are non-custodial, meaning that students are released to a guardian with a referral to appear in court later or enter the juvenile diversion program, if eligible. Per the most recent three-year MOU signed in May, SROs also attend a range of HCPSS-provided professional development trainings on subjects including restorative justice, anti-racism and mental health support.

“Statistically, since we instituted these trainings and we have a firm agreement on when and how SROs should be used, SRO-based arrests are down,” Rifield said.

A total of seven arrests were made by SROs between July 1, 2021, and May 1, 2022, according to the department. Of these, one was a custodial arrest in which a student was detained and six were handled by the juvenile referral process.

“We don’t want anyone to feel like they’re being policed in school, everyone should feel safe and welcome coming to school,” Ayoola said. “For some people, SROs encourage that, for other people it discourages that. As long as students are being valued and feel safe and everyone is able to do what they need to do in the school, I like the changes to [the program] now.”


Advertisement