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Howard school system sets timeline with meetings, discussions on whether to remove school resource officers

Two weeks ago, the Howard County Board of Education narrowly voted to not remove school resource officers from the system, with multiple members expressing concern about not having enough information or community input.

During Thursday’s board meeting, the school system established a timeline regarding the contentious topic, which includes multiple board discussions, focus groups, a town hall and a projected vote date of Jan. 21.

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The school system presented a report, which included national, state and local data and history of school resource officers in the U.S. and county, as well as additional questions from board members to multiple Howard County SROs who joined the meeting. No vote or decision was made regarding SROs on Thursday, but a step-by-step schedule was presented.

“Recent incidents and unrest throughout our nation have driven a national process of self-reflection about the deep and corrosive impact of racism on the fabric of our communities,” schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said.

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“... The issue of police presence in schools is a highly sensitive and controversial issue that inspires passionate opinions on all sides, and which unfortunately has become over-politicized. It is essential that we follow a carefully planned process for balanced discussion that is grounded in research and fact, is objective and transparent, and acknowledges and considers all points of view.”

Next on the schedule is a virtual focus group on Oct. 5, which will be facilitated by the school system with students and families. The school system will then have focus groups with staff and community stakeholders on Oct. 12 and 15, respectively. Updates about the focus groups will then be provided at the Board of Education meeting on Oct. 22. On Nov. 12, the school system will host a virtual town hall from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

The board will then discuss whether to keep, remove or change the SRO program during its meetings on Nov. 19 and Dec. 7. A potential final vote is currently scheduled to occur Jan. 21.

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 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 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.

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.

A school resource officer is assigned to all 12 public high schools and the Homewood Center, 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 police when needed.

The original vote to remove school resource officers from schools on Sept. 10 was put on the table by student member of the board Zach Koung, who is a senior at Howard High School. Chairperson Mavis Ellis, the first Black woman to serve as the chairperson for the Howard County Board of Education, Jen Mallo, Sabina 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, saying she was “blindsided.” Christina Delmont-Small and Cutroneo voted against removing SROs, while Chao Wu and Kirsten Coombs abstained.

Following that failed motion, some parents and community members expressed their opinions online about the topic. A petition to keep SROs in Howard County schools was made and now has more than 1,100 signatures.

The school system’s report on Thursday provided several pages of research and data about police in schools and SROs.

Arrests in Howard County schools have decreased every academic year for the last four years, from 109 in 2016-17 to 25 in the shortened 2019-20. However, Black students are disproportionately impacted by arrests in schools. For example, in the 2015-16 academic year, Black students made up 66% of arrests versus being 34.6% of the school system population. Students with disabilities are also arrested at an disproportionate rate, making up for 11% of the student population but 22% of school-related arrests.

Koung said he believes there’s a “correlation” between the middle schools chosen to have SROs and the percentage of Black students in those schools. 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.

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“The correlation that I see between why SROs are assigned to those middle schools is actually the 12 middle schools with the highest proportion of African American students are also the 12 middle schools that have an assigned SRO,” Koung said.

The decision for which schools have SROs was made by the police department with input from the school system. The police department funds the SROs.

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“I do not agree with singling out middle schools with SROs,” Cutroneo said. “If we are going to do it at the middle school level, we should do it for all middle schools. I know it’s a funding thing, but if it’s a funding thing, we should wait until we have the funding for all middle schools.”

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When the final discussions and a possible vote are held by the Board of Education, the makeup of the group will be different than it is now.

Three current members — Ellis, Coombs and Taj — will not be on the board when the new members are sworn in Dec. 7. Ellis and Taj did not run for re-election, while Coombs lost in the District 4 primary. Delmont-Small, District 1, and Mallo, District 4, are up for re-election on Nov. 3, while Cutroneo and Wu are the board’s at-large members and don’t have their terms run out until 2022.

Also during the meeting:

  • Martirano recommended suspending final exams for the 2020-21 academic year. Midterm exams for secondary students had already been removed in the school system’s new semester-based model. Amendments will be made to school policy for the school board to possibly review and vote on at the Oct. 8 meeting.
  • Surveys to families eligible for small-group learning or in-person support are being sent now. The school system has expanded the survey pool to families of all students receiving special education services.
  • Each high school has gathered a planning group to hold a Class of 2020 reunion activity, like a picnic or a dance, for June 2021. The Class of 2020 did not receive in-person graduation ceremonies due to the coronavirus pandemic and were instead included in pre-recorded, school-specific ceremonies.
  • All elementary school students have been given a Chromebook laptop for virtual learning. Almost 50% of middle school students and 33% of high school students have been provided devices. All school system students will be given a school-issued laptop by the end of the academic year.
  • The board approved the acceptance of a $213,000 grant from the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband Act/Department of Housing and Community Development to provide internet services to students during virtual learning.

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