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Howard County Board of Education motion to remove police officers from schools fails

A motion to remove school resource officers in Howard County schools failed during the Board of Education’s meeting Thursday.

Student member Zach Koung raised the motion, which failed 4-2-2. Member Christina Delmont-Small and Vice Chairperson Vicky Cutroneo both voted against, while members Chao Wu and Kirsten Coombs abstained. All four said the board needed more information before voting.

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“There have been a lot of discussions going on between the superintendent and the police department, and we have not been privy to any of those discussions,” Cutroneo said. “Nothing has been brought to us publicly as far as research or a plan. I think the plan was for all of the data and discussions to be brought to us so we can have a public discussion.”

While some school board members pushed back on the timing of the motion, Koung said he believes the data on the topic is “clear.” Koung, a senior at Howard High School, is the lone student member on the board and was voted for by Howard County students, not county voters.

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“I think the evidence and data is very clear that [school resource officers] are not positive for our schools,” said Koung, who is a voting member of the board, excluding on issues regarding redistricting, the budget and personnel. “I’m very wary that we’re dragging our feet.”

Before the motion, Mavis Ellis, the first Black woman to serve as the chairperson for the Howard County Board of Education, talked about her personal experiences, revealing that Jacob Blake, a Black man shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is her cousin. She later voted in favor of removing police from schools in Howard County.

“We know the issue of having [school resource officers] in schools is one that folks in the [Black Lives Matter] movement want to be reconsidered. Many students and others in the Black community are very wary of having armed, inadequately trained and possibly racist police officers in our schools,” Ellis said.

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.” All 12 public high schools and the Homewood Center have a school resource officer — also known as SROs — while six officers are split among 12 different middle schools. There are no SROs in elementary schools; however, elementary and middle school administrators can receive assistance from SROs when needed.

The Howard County Police Department couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday night.

In his report to open the meeting, Superintendent Michael Martirano said he is “very open to reexamining police in our schools.”

“We do not have any school resource officers in our schools at this time,” Martirano said, due to schools being virtual amid the coronavirus pandemic. “I believe this offers us the opportunity to do a thorough review of our SRO program and gather as much data as possible to make an informed decision as it pertains to police in our schools.”

The presence of school resource officers in public schools has been one of many ancillary topics discussed in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests this summer following the police shooting of 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 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 re-evaluate 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.

“My first major concern,” wrote Iftekar Husain, a 2010 Hammond High School graduate, in the petition “was the presence of a police officer in the school who usually followed Black students around and made many of my peers feel targeted and under surveillance in a place that’s supposed to be a learning environment.”

After receiving the petition, Martirano said he would consider every demand, meet with the students who created the petition as well as other students and that racism was “absolutely” a problem in the school system.

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In July, County Executive Calvin Ball didn’t make clear his stance on the SRO program in Howard County schools.

“There should be a conversation about their role, about what specifically are some of the concerns, [and] can they be ameliorated?” Ball said. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of having an open dialogue about more understanding, about improved training, about temperament, about perception. I think all those things are worthwhile points of conversation.”

SRO programs, which have existed in schools for decades, have become more prevalent in recent years following an increase of mass shootings in schools across the country. Martirano said in July that after the shooting in February 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 people dead, there was a “significant push” by residents in Howard County to expand the SRO program.

Later in 2018, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Safe to Learn Act, which creates guidelines for school systems regarding safety measures and police in schools. Coombs, who said she is “wary” about keeping SROs in schools, referenced the law as a reason to wait on the vote. If the vote had passed without a plan in place, she thought the school system could be in violation of the law.

Mark Blom, general counsel for the school system, said the law requires school systems to either have SRO coverage in schools or to provide “adequate” police coverage to schools when needed.

“We aren’t mandated to have SROs,” Blom said. “But we would be obligated to have a plan [if we remove them]. The plan we currently have is a combination of SROs and adequate law enforcement coverage.”

In addition to Koung, member Sabina Taj also referenced the data as a reason to remove SROs from schools, but neither provided any specific data points. Taj and member Jen Mallo were the other two to vote in favor of the motion. Delmont-Small said she would like to see what the data is specifically in Howard County.

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“I get wary of wanting to apply other data sets to Howard County because sometimes there’s a correlation and sometimes there’s not,” Delmont-Small said. “I don’t want to ignore other data sets, but I want to take data from Howard County and put that into the discussion.”

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Wu said he was “totally surprised” by the motion, while Cutroneo said she was “blindsided” and that it is “premature.”

“This is a very difficult topic and it’s challenging for the whole school system and country,” Wu said. “But at the same time it’s important to get our community and police department engaged and wait to have the superintendent come back. Our schools aren’t open, so we should wait for him to come back with more information.”

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