School board, council question Howard school police patrol proposals

At least one meeting is in the works to discuss details of an announcement made late last week that Howard County Police patrol officers have been ordered to make routine stops and go inside schools on their beats.

“We’re acutely aware of the sensitivity of the concern within our community,” Interim Superintendent Michael J. Martirano said Thursday at a joint meeting of the Howard County Council and the Board of Education. “This is just the ongoing discussion. We’ve got work to do. I would suggest we have a special meeting just to talk about this, to brief the council and the community.”

The proposal, which calls on officers to stop by at least one school within their coverage area each day to learn the layout of the building and talk with staff, is part of a larger suite of school security initiatives unveiled Tuesday, including more door locks at high schools and additional police officers for middle schools.

The issue was not on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting but dominated conversation for nearly an hour after board and council members — who were not apprised of the policy prior to its debut — said they’d heard concerns from constituents in the wake of the announcement.

“What does ‘increased patrol’ look like?” asked Board of Education member Kirsten Coombs. “What’s the nitty-gritty of that? The community is very concerned.”

The program is an extension of the Howard County Police Department’s existing community-policing initiative, where officers are asked to leave their patrol cars and walk their beats to establish relationships with residents, said Police Chief Gary Gardner.

“(Officers) would stop by that school, check in with the front office, get to know the principal, get to know the staff, with the intent that you know on the front end who the principal and staff is, so when you have an issue that’s not the first time you’ve had contact with them,” Gardner said.

Patrol officers would not replace or act as school resource officers, who are stationed full-time inside schools, he said. But they could walk the hallways in an effort to learn the layout of the different buildings, mostly for “emergency planning” purposes.

“This is not a patrolling of the school hallways for loiterers, for people talking out loud, whatever the case may be,” he said. “Those things are managed by the school.”

That would always happen with permission, Gardner added, after the officer checks in with the front office. Police officers would be subject to the same scrutiny as regular visitors, who are only permitted inside school buildings if they have “business” there, Martirano said.

Board members asked Gardner what would happen if a police officer happened upon illegal activity during a hallway stroll — a student using an e-cigarette, for example, or two students fighting.

“If an officer came upon a fight, could they arrest a student?” asked Board of Education member Bess Altwerger. “It could lead to increased arrests, could it not?”

Those situations would be handled on a case-by-case basis, depending on the incident and the specific school, Gardner said. In some cases, existing policy addresses those concerns — a serious assault, for example, would already prompt police interaction, he said.

“If it’s a serious enough assault, they would contact the police and we would respond to that school,” he said. “So if it’s a serious enough assault it could rise to that level, yes.”

In total, board and council members peppered Gardner with questions for nearly an hour before Howard County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty halted the conversation, noting that the group had a packed agenda to attend to.

Altwerger closed with a plea for more communication.

“Given that the Board of Education was not apprised of this program prior to the announcement of it, we look forward to meeting with you and making sure we understand exactly what is planned,” she said. “I would appreciate very much if we could set up a meeting between the police department and the Board of Education so we could air those concerns we’re hearing and get some responses.”

Gardner said he was willing to do so, though no dates were proposed Thursday.

“Our intent for this was to be a positive thing for the community, the school system, the faculty, and everyone inside those schools,” he said. “School safety is a concern and on the minds of all of our students. We want to be part of that solution to make them feel better. We’re not looking to go in there to make an arrest. We want students and faculty to feel safe, that’s the bottom line. If we can meet…to answer those questions, absolutely we’re in support of that.”

The school board will likely have its own discussion “about safety and security initiatives” at its April 24 meeting, according to school spokesman Brian Bassett.

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