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Sen. Jennings: Maryland 20 years too late addressing safety of school children

After the tragic events of 9/11, improved airline security measures were implemented immediately in every airport in America to ensure the safety of passengers and prevent another attack of that magnitude from happening again. Airline travel could not just cease to exist. Travelers needed better security, and the American people needed to be reassured that everything in their government’s power was being done to keep the public as safe as possible.

Next month marks the 20th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. Since then there have been countless incidents in schools across the nation, including right here in Maryland, when an armed person has entered a building with the intent to do harm. Yet, unlike the understandably swift response to 9/11, our schools continue to be extremely vulnerable targets. As both a father and a legislator, nothing is more important to me than keeping our children as safe as possible at school. And, when I ask myself if everything in our power is being done to accomplish this, the answer is “no.”

According to the Department of Emergency Services for Harford County, the average time it takes to respond to an incident once a 911 call has been dispatched is nearly 8 minutes. As we all sadly know, a lot of damage can occur at the hands of an active shooter in that amount of time. If you need a reason to prove the importance of School Resource Officers, look to the incident that occurred right here in Maryland last year. An armed SRO assigned to Great Mills High School was able to engage an active shooter within 1 minute and is credited with preventing greater devastation and loss of life.

And, as many students, teachers and parents can attest, SROs don’t just make our schools safer — they become ingrained into the school community and foster positive relationships between law enforcement and youth.

Here in Harford County, the SRO program started 20 years ago with six officers and has recently grown to include one in every middle and high school in the county. Harford County might be ahead of the curve — and I’m proud that we are leading the state with school safety — but there is still more to be done here and across the state.

In 2018, I introduced legislation to place an armed SRO in every public elementary, middle and high school in Maryland. My bill was rolled into The Maryland Safe to Learn Act of 2018.

Unfortunately, this compromised legislation that passed the General Assembly was not as strong as the bill I proposed and merely requires that county school systems to file a report with the state that includes: (1) which public high schools have a dedicated armed SRO; or (2) the plan the school system has created to have police coverage for each public high school instead of a dedicated armed SRO. Beginning with the 2019-2020 school year, this requirement for SRO/local law enforcement coverage extends to all public schools in accordance with local plans developed by the school system and law enforcement to provide adequate coverage.

Last month, I introduced Senate Bill 884, Public Schools — School Resource Officers — Firearms Required, which would encompass the entire State of Maryland by requiring all county SROs — including Baltimore City School Police Officers — to carry a firearm while on the premises of the school to which the officer is assigned. Baltimore City is currently the only jurisdiction in Maryland that prohibits SROs from carrying service weapons in the school building.

February’s incident at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore is yet another unfortunate example of why passage of this bill is so critical. While I’m encouraged by the recent vote by the city school board to reverse their ban on arming SROs, the measure still needs to pass the legislature in Annapolis. Our work is far from over.

There will be two public hearings in the Senate on this bill: Tuesday, March 12, at noon in the Judicial Proceedings committee and Wednesday, March 13, at 1 p.m. in the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee. Please contact my office at if you would like more information on attending or testifying at the hearings.

The safety of our children is the highest priority of every parent. One can only hope that my fellow legislators in Annapolis feel the same way. School safety isn’t a Republican issue or a Democrat issue. It’s a common sense issue. We are 20 years late to addressing a serious public safety crisis. The time is now.

Republican Sen. J.B. Jennings represents District 7.

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