Following the county Board of Education's lengthy discussion about school resource officers earlier this month, Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins is defending the program and seeking to clarify its mission.
The Frederick County Sheriff's Office provides one lieutenant, one sergeant, two corporals and 11 deputies to the SRO program, including SRO assignments at schools in Frederick city at Frederick High, Gov. Thomas Johnson High and Heather Ridge School. SROs and other deputies conduct safety checks at other schools, as well.
Frederick and Brunswick police departments also provide SROs to the district.
On Dec. 9, the school board voted 5-2 to accept a $168,000 grant from the Maryland Center for School Safety. From that discussion, Jenkins found fault with the way board members defined the responsibilities of SROs and the board's decision to seek a grant he believes they didn't need in the first place.
“For the public’s understanding, the details presented to the BOE, by the Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS), were wrong and misleading and I would like to clear up some specific details that were cited in the Dec. 11 Frederick News-Post article,” Jenkins said in a statement issued Wednesday, noting he only spoke for the SROs in his department.
Prior to the board's vote, Scott Blundell, security and emergency management supervisor for FCPS, told board members the grant money would be used primarily to pay officers overtime to assist with things like meal and educational material distributions, return to play activities and to assist with student support investigations or follow-ups.
Blundell also told board members that SROs may assist FCPS personnel when conducting wellness checks of students at their homes. Such wellness checks may occur when a student hasn't logged on to virtual learning in several days, he said. Board member Liz Barrett then expressed concern with the idea of SROs visiting students' homes. Board member David Bass concurred and wanted to know how many times SROs have conducted at-home visits. Barrett and Bass opposed accepting the school safety grant.
In Wednesday's statement, Jenkins said the board has the wrong idea. He clarified SROs are not conducting home visits simply because a child missed a class or isn't doing well in school.
“We will make home visits under normal circumstances, which includes if a child is endangered or at risk, incidents that would require law enforcement involvement, and/or criminal complaints," Jenkins (R) said in the statement. "We do not police whether or not a student misses a virtual class or is not doing their online assignments. These are clearly not law enforcement functions.”
Jenkins added that SROs' functions do not include meal distribution.
“I have made it clear from the start that FCSO SROs will not participate in these distributions. There are very definitive lines and limits with the SRO’s roles in our schools,” Jenkins said.
SROs and other deputies have, however, conducted safety checks at schools where meal distribution occurs, the statement reads.
School Superintendent Terry Alban said during the Dec. 9 board of education meeting that sometimes if the school system is expecting a large crowd at a meal pick-up site they might ask for traffic management assistance from the SROs.
Community members have also expressed concern at the idea of the law enforcement officers visiting students' homes.
Lt. Jason Deater, who leads the FCSO SRO team, said their job includes law enforcement, security, serving as positive role models and offering guidance on law enforcement-related issues. This does not, however, include enforcing routine school rules or discipline, he said in the sheriff's office statement.
During the most recent meeting of the FCPS Racial Equity Committee, two community members submitted public comments on the topic.
"The board should not be taking the action of sending an SRO to a student's place of residence lightly," said Jackie Brinkmann, who asked the committee to look into how families, especially those of color, are affected by these visits.
Lisa Bromfield had similar thoughts.
"It is a threatening experience for the kids, especially for the kids in immigrant communities. It is not appropriate to send law enforcement to the home of a student who is having issues with virtual learning…this action will diminish trust between some folks in the community and the Frederick County Public Schools at a time when trust and collaboration are necessary for success," she said.
Regarding finances, the sheriff believes the SRO program is adequately funded at $2.4 million annually. He did not see a need for an additional $168,000 for the sheriff's office SROs and told the board as much, Jenkins said. He said FCPS applied for the grant despite him offering guidance that it was not needed.
Launched in 2000, FCSO's SRO program has been recognized as a "model program" by NASRO and received a National School Safety Award from the School Safety Advocacy Council, according to the sheriff's office.
FCPS and board respond
FCPS and Board of Education President Jay Mason released a joint statement in response to the sheriff's remarks on Wednesday.
The school system confirmed that Jenkins had not been in support of applying for the $168,000 grant, but that FCPS decided to pursue it due to both the pandemic and some uncertainties surrounding both services and costs related to maintaining the SRO program.
"The pandemic has created a new normal for all educational processes and procedures. The FCPS intent was to apply for the grant to address any unanticipated support from SRO partners; any unused funds are returned to the Maryland Center for School Safety," Daryl Boffman, executive director of public affairs, said in the statement.
The school system also concurred that FCSO deputies are not conducting home visits for students who have not logged on for virtual learning.
"FCPS does not request SROs to make home visits to ensure a student logs on in the virtual learning environment unless there are other law enforcement related circumstances. SRO home visit support is requested through FCPS administrators and/or Pupil Personnel Workers located at the student’s home school," Boffman said.
Regarding the distribution of educational materials, Boffman said SROs and other law enforcement officers did assist with handing out Chromebooks to students and families ahead of the school system entering a virtual learning environment.
Paul Lebo, chief operating officer for FCPS, said in a statement that FCPS is fortunate to have partnerships with local law enforcement agencies for the SRO program, especially during these unprecedented times.
“Unfortunately, the pandemic will not afford any of us the option to adopt a business as usual mentality,” he said.
Deater said the sheriff's office, in partnership with the school district, is planning ways to reintroduce SROs to schools when students fully return to the buildings.