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Howard County Board of Education again postpones vote on stopping school resource officer program

In September, the Howard County Board of Education had its first vote on whether to remove police from its schools.

Five months after that original vote, which narrowly failed, the board once again couldn’t come to an agreement on the issue during its Jan. 21 meeting and voted to confront the topic at later meetings.

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“We see that there is a problem with the program,” board member Jolene Mosley said. “... The initial vote on this was in September. I think there has been lots of time for planning. I feel like central office has done all the planning and all the ‘kicking the can down the road’ that we need to do. … We have to nail this down. We have to deal with this.”

The board voted on three motions during the meeting that was spent mostly on discussing the school system’s reopening plans amid the coronavirus pandemic. None of the motions, however, decided the fate of the school resource officer — or SRO — program.

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The meeting began with schools Superintendent Michael Martirano and other system leaders laying out two different plans for the program. Broken down, the two options were basically whether to keep or get rid of the SRO program. Getting rid of the program would lead to the school system adding mental health or security staff, while keeping SROs would require changes made to the program that some in the community, especially current and former students, consider to be harmful.

“What is clear through our engagement process is that the Howard County Public School System must make changes to how we approach safety and security,” Martirano said. “The current status quo cannot continue.”

The first vote, which failed like many motions have recently in a 4-4 tie, was motioned by Mosley and would have directed the district to fully develop both plans and would mandate board action on the program by April 15.

However, the motion also included language that would mean no school resource officers could be in Howard County schools until a new plan is implemented by the board. This means if the board continues to tie on its most important votes and a new plan isn’t approved, then SROs would not be in schools. Board Chair Chao Wu and members Christina Delmont-Small, Vicky Cutroneo and Yun Lu voted against the motion; Mosley, Vice Chair Jen Mallo, student member Zach Koung and member Antonia Barkley Watts voted in favor.

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“Not every school has SROs, so it’s not this super off-the-wall thing to say that we see a problem with this program, we need to stop the program, reassess it and re-evaluate it and implement something that’s better,” Mosley said.

The school system defines 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 officers are funded out of the police department’s budget, not the school system’s.

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, 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.

Resource officers have not been in Howard County schools since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered school buildings 10 months ago. The district’s more than 56,000 students have been learning online since last April, but for two months in the fall, small groups of students were in programs in 26 Howard County school buildings without SROs.

Following the failed motion in September, the board set up a schedule with multiple board discussions, town halls and focus groups. Then in October, the Howard County administrators union supported keeping the school resource officer program.

“There are certain marginalized communities that have negative relationships or feelings about law enforcement,” said Robert Motley, the union’s vice president and principal at Atholton High School. “What better way to improve that than through this program?”

With patience growing thin during the nearly six-hour meeting last week, Mallo presented two motions on the topic that received unanimous votes. The first clarified that no school resource officers would be in schools until there is a board approved agreement — a memorandum of understanding — on the program with the police department. The second vote directed Martirano to develop both plans and require board action by April 29.

Delmont-Small said she hopes the board can vote on the agreement between the board and the police department before March 1, which is when some Howard County students could return to school buildings under the district’s new proposed hybrid model that will be voted on Tuesday. However, she’s also wary about how those votes will go.

“I like the idea that [approval of the agreement] comes from the board,” Delmont-Small said. “Although I am concerned that this is just a tactic — that there will be a second bite of the apple to not approve the [memorandum of understanding] and we will be back with not having SROs in schools while we’re working on the plan.”

Thomas McNeal, the school system’s security director, said the district does not have a plan in case a hybrid model begins without school resource officers. If the board doesn’t approve an agreement between the school system and the police department before March 1, that could occur.

“The plan thus far is that when students returned into hybrid that the SROs would as well,” McNeal said. “… I don’t have on-hand staff to replace that loss.”

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However, Mark Blom, the school system’s general counsel, said the district would not be violating the Safe to Learn Act of 2018, which requires all Maryland school systems to either have SROs or adequate police coverage for all its schools. Prior to the pandemic, 52 of the system’s schools — all elementary schools and some middle schools — comply with the state law without SRO coverage.

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A factor in the board again pushing the vote to future meetings is possible legislation about SROs in the General Assembly. Martirano said a workgroup led by Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, who represents parts of Howard County in District 13, is considering filing legislation regarding SROs in schools.

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