Legislature Threatens To Defund Police In Public Schools

Posted

Elected representatives from Montgomery, Charles and Prince George’s counties have drafted legislation that could affect the safety and security of all Maryland children.

Led by Montgomery County Democrats Gabriel Acevero and Jheanelle Wilkins, House Bill 1089, known as the Police Free Schools Act, is designed to prohibit school districts from contracting with local law enforcement agencies to employ school resource officers (SROs) in public schools.

The idea may be popular in Montgomery County but not in Severna Park.

“We’ve been operating in a COVID-related state of emergency for a year,” said Elizabeth Werner, wife of school resource officer Alex Swartz, who is assigned to Severna Park High School (SPHS). “Making drastic decisions before we get public health and student safety under control is not a good idea. SROs are trained in crisis management, including comprehensive COVID-related support and intervention.”

Severna Park resident Linda DeMoss agrees. “Removing school resource officers from Anne Arundel County is a terrible idea,” DeMoss said. “This is a program that has been working successfully for 20 years. It integrates trained law enforcement officers into the school environment, embracing them as a natural part of the community.”

A trial run for this new legislation was launched in November 2020 by Montgomery County councilmembers William Jawando and Hans Riemer when they introduced a bill to remove school resource officers from their county’s public schools, redirecting the dollars to mental health and restorative justice programs.

“There’s a flood of legislation being generated by the political leadership right now that is not always well known to the public and it’s aimed at removing security personnel from our schools,” said Delegate Sid Saab, a Republican who represents Severna Park in District 33. “I wholeheartedly support keeping SROs in schools. Defunding them is a huge mistake.”

Additional legislation includes the Counselors Not Cops Act, House Bill 496, which reassigns $10 million away from the Maryland Safe Schools Fund into counseling services.

During a hearing on February 3, Wilkins explained why she sees a need for the legislation. About 70 percent of school-based arrests, she said, are for minor offenses like disruption, disrespect, trespassing and property destruction, and altercations that don’t involve weapons.

“It’s not just about the arrests though; it’s also use of force with students where we’ve seen students kicked, slapped, punched, taken to the ground,” Wilkins said. “We’ve seen handcuffing and restraint. And oftentimes, students might not be arrested, but they are referred to the justice system for minor violations, and it’s the trauma of armed police patrolling our schools.”

Another bill, House Bill 245, limits the entry of an SRO into a school building and prevents the SRO from participating in routine school discipline.

“The presence of SROs is primarily preventative,” said Severna Park resident Michelle Monroe, whose son is a 2020 graduate of SPHS. “It supports a non-bullying environment. Students form relationships and feel supported by these officers. And it’s been working very well. Why change it?”

The multifaceted approach to dismantling the SRO program includes a fourth bill (House Bill 522) that prevents security personnel from enforcing certain discipline-related policies. That bill’s sponsor, Delegate Alonzo Washington (Democrat—Prince George’s County), said enforcement of discipline should originate with administrators or teachers, not school resource officers.

Although SROs in Anne Arundel County don’t intervene in disciplinary matters, the new legislation, opponents argue, would impede an SROs ability to de-escalate potentially volatile situations.

“Feedback on our SRO program has been nothing but positive from parents, students and citizens,” said Lieutenant Dan Johnson, commander of the School Safety Section, which operates under the Anne Arundel County Police Department’s Bureau of Patrol. “SROs are sworn law enforcement, hand-picked, part of the Anne Arundel County Police Department and specifically trained to work with the students of our county.”

In March 2018, following an increase in school-related violence, state Senator Katherine Klausmeier (Democrat-Baltimore County), introduced a bill to increase security at all state public schools. After Klausmeier’s bill became law, all 24 jurisdictions in Maryland were mandated to have “adequate local law enforcement coverage” or a school resource officer assigned to each public school campus.

Three years later, defunding local law enforcement may be popular in some counties, but according to State Senator Ed Reilly, it’s not right for Anne Arundel County.

“This legislation might be appropriate as a local bill for another county, but in my opinion, it is not legislation that should be law for the entire state of Maryland,” Reilly said. “The school resource officers in Anne Arundel County do an extremely good job, and our citizens are comfortable with them being in our high schools. In addition to this, the Anne Arundel County school board has indicated that they do not want to change the current system. I will not be supporting this piece of legislation.”

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment