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Stepped-up police patrols for Howard schools drawing questions, concerns

County Executive Allan Kittleman, left, Superintendent Michael Martirano, center, and Chief of Police Gary Gardner, right, at a press conference on March 27 to announce new school security initiatives, including adding schools to officers' foot patrols.
County Executive Allan Kittleman, left, Superintendent Michael Martirano, center, and Chief of Police Gary Gardner, right, at a press conference on March 27 to announce new school security initiatives, including adding schools to officers' foot patrols. (Kate Magill/ BSMG)

Some Howard County Council members and the county’s NAACP chapter are expressing concern over the police department’s announcement last week that patrol officers have been ordered to make daily stops and go inside schools on their beats.

The initiative, which calls on officers to stop in at least one school within their coverage area each day to learn the layout of the building and talk with staff, was announced on social media by the police department on Friday and was started Monday.

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The decision to add the school stops was suggested by the police department to the school system, originally as a reaction to the shooting at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County on March 20, according to schools spokesman Brian Bassett. The idea to continue the practice in a formal manner was also suggested by the department, with school system approval, he said.

School Superintendent Michael Martirano released a statement Wednesday evening about the change, writing that “while I have personally received a great deal of positive feedback supporting this effort, I have also heard some concerns from the community about increased police presence in our school buildings.”

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The superintendent said he has “encouraged” Police Chief Gary Gardner to work with school administrators to establish times for families and staff to meet the officers who will be in schools. He also emphasized that officers will not have disciplinary authority, are not involved in identifying students who may be undocumented citizens and will not be permitted in schools if they “purposely adopt an intimidating or threatening presence.”

Reactions to the added checks have been swift.

“What we don’t want to do is to create a situation where having additional police in the schools is potentially scary and that it could send the wrong message,” council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said. “I know the [police] chief is figuring out how to make people feel even more comfortable. I’m sure this was in his thinking a positive, but I would think having them turn up randomly could be disorienting and scary to some kids.”

The Howard County NAACP released a statement Wednesday calling on the school system to provide greater communication about the initiative.

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“Our Branch is not in favor of policy changes with no community input. The resent [sic] roll-out of an enhanced or expanded policing policy without community reporting or buy-in should not be the standard by which Howard County should operate,” the statement read. “It only creates anxiety and confusion. It is important to avoid such emotions and promote collaboration on the front end.”

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman announced on Tuesday that he was committing $1.1 million in his upcoming capital budget towards school security initiatives.

The decision for officer rounds to schools is the latest initiatives from the county in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Fla., which prompted students across the country to demand greater gun control and school safety. Hundreds of Howard County students attended the March 24 March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C.

County Executive Allan Kittleman, Martirano and Gardner held a press conference Tuesday to announce $1.1 million in capital funding for school security and the addition of three school resource officers for middle schools.

Board of Education Chairwoman Cindy Vaillancourt said officers’ instructions to visit schools is under the police department’s purview, but that it would be up to the school system how the officers’ visits are handled once they are inside the building and that she’d like to see those details codified. She said it could be a “good thing” to have officers escorted by a school administrator if they wish to walk the halls or eat lunch with students.

“We want to be very aware that the presence of law enforcement does have an effect on the kids. One of the things we want to do is make that reaction to be a comforting reaction not a fear reaction,” she said. “We have to be sensitive to the fact that not all kids experience police presence the same way.”

Bassett confirmed that officers would need to be allowed inside schools through the routine screening procedures by front office workers.

The police department’s Friday announcement was met with anxiety and frustration from some parents and others in the community, with hundreds of comments in response to the Facebook posting from the department.

Security is playing a bigger role in school design in the wake of school shootings and other tragedies

Some parents wrote they supported the idea of increasing community interaction with police, while others wrote they felt the initiative would spark fear in students.

Columbia resident and parent Cynthia Fikes said she wanted officials to “pause and give us an opportunity to weigh in. “

“To seismically shift the culture in our schools, with no community outreach, no parental involvement, the kids have a million questions. It almost feels very rushed. Why was the community not informed?” she said. “There are children who are afraid and there are parents who are afraid for their children. What was the rush to get this done?”

Council members Sigaty, Jen Terrasa and Calvin Ball all said they learned about the initiative the same way the general public did — through social media.

“We want to be safer and we want to do that in a smart way, so I’m interested to hear how they think pulling a patrol officer off the street and bringing them into school achieves that,” Terrasa said. “[School resource officers] stay at the school and develop strong relations with the school and families, we need them. This is going to stretch our officers thin and we need them out in our community and keeping us safe. So the question is how does adding them to our schools add [to our safety]?”

Ball said he wants officers in schools to receive training in restorative justice practices, something Martirano mentioned during a press conference on Tuesday would be implemented with school resource officers, however he did not mention whether this would also include patrol officers or when and how this training would take place. Restorative justice practices, an approach to conflict resolution, focus on fixing the relationship between an offender and victim through positive communication.

“Being in a school around children is a potentially different beat than a normal foot patrol, so I want them to have sufficient training so they know and they’re empowered to do their best,” Ball said. “There needs to be a broad community conversation about how the community feels about this change.”

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