School resource officer Rebecca Carrado of the Frederick Police Department views the students she serves as a family.
“I tell everybody I have 618 kids,” Sgt. Carrado said, laughing. “We’re there solely to ensure the child’s success.”
Carrado is assigned to Lincoln Elementary School and the SUCCESS Program at Frederick County Public Schools. She leads the SROs within FPD’s outreach unit, which includes six officers for FCPS.
Carrado and her colleagues see their roles as mentors and educators.
“We want to teach our kids, if they need help and they see the uniform, to go to the uniform,” she said.
But not everyone sees it that way. Some Frederick community activists and school board members have pointed out that some students of color feel uncomfortable by the presence of police officers due to the high-profile instances of racial injustice across the country, most notably the killing of George Floyd.
“If you are a student of color whose parents have been detained by ICE, if you are a student of color whose parents have been pulled over while driving for being Black, you have a completely different perspective on what an armed uniformed officer means,” said Jackie Brinkman, one of the head organizers of End Racism FCPS, a group of FCPS students and alumni that supports racial equity in the school system.
Members of the group say they want the SRO program to be disbanded.
“It’s just a different definition. It’s a different lens of existence, and it’s a different reality,” Brinkman said of students of colors’ view of SROs.
Her organization says students of color have been negatively impacted by the SRO program, something with which Frederick County Board of Education President Jay Mason agrees.
Mason said one of the top priorities of the current board is to make sure all students feel comfortable and empowered in schools. Mason doesn’t support disbanding the SRO program in its entirety, but he does back some reforms that he believes would make students of color feel more at ease.
In Annapolis, legislators have put forward bills in the House and Senate that, if passed, would drastically change SRO programs across the state. House Bill 496 seeks to eliminate SROs in favor of more counselors, psychologists and social workers, while Senate Bill 245 includes proposals that would limit SRO access to school buildings and require them to wear plain clothes instead of a uniform.
Both bills had hearings in their respective committees weeks ago, but neither have come to a final vote.
While some want to see officers in plain clothes, Carrado sees the uniform as a way to connect with students. She said she shows them her equipment and even lets them try on gear.
“This uniform obviously symbolizes law enforcement, and we want them to be comfortable with law enforcement, and if I’m not in a uniform then that doesn’t happen,” she said.
Carrado believes students benefit from seeing a consistent face in police garb. She suspects students would be less likely to trust random officers who stopped by to check on school buildings.
Each school has its own “language,” Carrado said. At her school, staff may ask a student what “level” they are at. The number they reply with tells Carrado whether that student needs a minute to decompress and calm down.
School resource officers who spoke with the News-Post recognize there is a place for mental health resources in schools. A few said they aren’t opposed to those added resources, but officers don’t want to be kicked out of buildings either.
“We’re all for more mental health services,” said Lt. Jason Deater, who leads the SRO program for Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, which has 14 SROs.
“I think there’s a misconception the police officer is being proactive looking for the criminal element, looking for the trouble,” he said. “We’re not targeting or going after students.”
Deater said he’s not at odds with more school counselors, psychologists or social workers, but it’s not as if deputies aren’t trained to handle mental health situations. They often respond to such calls outside of the school system.
Similarly, Officer First Class Darrick Scott of the Brunswick Police Department described mental health professionals as allies in their shared mission to protect children.
“I think we can work together as a team,” he said.
Scott, who is Brunswick’s sole SRO, is leery of legislation that would make it so officers would only respond to schools when called. He thinks of the shootings that have plagued schools across America over the years.
“I think it’s very important for SROs to be inside [the schools],” he said, adding if he’s inside, he can protect students.
Scott is not opposed to SROs wearing a “softer” looking uniform, but he doesn’t think the uniform is a major issue. How an officer interacts with students is what matters, he said.
“We are more than SROs,” Scott said. “We are the coach. We are, sometimes, the father figure.”
The school board’s Mason thinks there are ways in which schools can still be kept safe while also putting some students at ease. He specifically cited having SROs in plain clothes or having them stationed outside the school building — similar to what is laid out in Senate Bill 245.
“I think we have many societal problems that contribute to this SRO conversation — one of them being that, historically, police have over-policed our Black and brown communities,” he said.
But, more than reforms to the current program, Mason wants to see a bigger focus on mental health. SROs are reactionary, he said, and the underlying causes of students’ issues need to be addressed first.
“I think we have to get to the root cause of the problems [students] have, and I’m not sure an SRO is able to do that, but our mental health providers can do that,” Mason said. “We have to understand ... what causes them harm to want to come to school to cause harm.”
Deater, the sheriff’s office SRO, acknowledged trust is key.
“For us to be effective, we have to have the trust of the community,” he said, “And they can be confident that we provide that level of service.”
Staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed to this report.