Despite recent discussions at both the state and local levels about disbanding School Resource Officer (SRO) programs, Frederick County Board of Education members appear set on keeping the one here in place.
Board members say they would like to see the safety initiative continue, but many have expressed interest in seeing more hard data from both Frederick County Public Schools and the SRO-partner police agencies regarding how students and families feel about officers and the roles they play within school communities.
Several officers from the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office (FCSO) and the Frederick Police Department (FPD) attended a recent Board of Education meeting to answer questions and provide an overview of how each agency operates within the parameters of the program.
The FCPS SRO program pulls officers from FCSO, FPD and the Brunswick Police Department. While there is not one officer stationed in every school, there is at least one officer in each feeder pattern. According to information provided by FCSO, there is approximately one SRO to every 2,200 students.
The Safe to Learn Act — the state law that mandates public schools have adequate law enforcement coverage — says adequate coverage is about one officer to every 1,000 students. Due to the vast geography of Frederick County and the highly selective nature of the program, expanding the number of officers is almost impossible, according to Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, who was in attendance at the board meeting.
But through partnerships with other local law enforcement agencies such as the Thurmont Police Department and Mount Airy Police Department, external safety checks of all schools are done almost daily.
All officers who are selected to be SROs go through multiple trainings that include topics like educational law and mental health. SROs also complete FCPS training in restorative practices and social-emotional learning.
One point each agency made clear was that SROs are not involved in school disciplinary proceedings unless a crime has been committed, and officers are not conducting student home visits unless there is concern about a student’s safety or well-being.
The officers present at the board meeting also emphasized the idea of relationships and community policing, saying the goal of the program is to not only provide safety but also act as mentors and resources to students and families.
“We’re not there to lock up kids; that’s not what we’re doing. We’re very reluctant to do that ... and it’s only in the most extreme cases and only at the urging of the administrators or the parents that are involved. Otherwise, we’re trying to find other ways to solve the problem,” said Frederick Police Lt. John Corbett.
Sheriff Jenkins hailed the program and said he doesn’t see any problem with how it’s run.
“It’s a shame that society has come to the point where we even have to have SROs, but that’s the world we live in, and we’re there to prevent threats,” Jenkins said.
The community concept is something board members say they want to see more often. Members David Bass and Liz Barrett asked what type of feedback had been collected from families. Both agencies said they have not conducted formal surveys but have received positive indirect feedback about the program.
Barrett pushed back a little.
“We have heard from a number of students and community groups that they have real and specific questions about equity in terms of the police activity that does happen in schools in terms of when there is a real or perceived crime,” Barrett said. “ ... we definitely have to talk to the families who have questions and concerns.”
The FCPS Racial Equity Committee produced a statement on the program that called on board members to ask for data and to collect feedback from families.
“We would like to urge the board ... to review the program through a lens of equity, especially for those such as black and brown students who have been historically marginalized in our communities,” the statement said.
New FPD Chief Jason Lando offered his insights into the program during the school board’s March 24 meeting. He agreed community involvement is important and said he is willing to have FPD work with FCPS to collect feedback and data.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t work with our data analysts to come up with something, whether it’s an annual survey or every six months to survey the community,” Lando said. “... I’m sure we could come up with some sort of a questionnaire to make sure we’re doing all the right things.”
Mia Martinez, the student member of the Board of Education, said FCPS students do not want to see the program disbanded. She conducted a survey via social media that asked students how they felt about SROs and school safety. Of the 41 responses she received, 75 percent of students said they felt safe with their school’s SRO, and 87 percent said they think officers should remain in schools. The only major concern she found in the feedback was the lack of diversity among the officers.
“There were a few statements made that students felt more comfortable when their SRO was also a minority,” Martinez said. “They felt like there was some more middle ground, that they could connect with them a little bit more.”
Board member Brad Young continued to voice support for the SRO initiative.
“Our program is not broke, there are no things that alarm me. I think there’s always things that we can improve upon,” Young said. “I would hate to see us ever pull the officers out of the school.”
Barrett agreed and said the conversations currently happening at the state level regarding the future of similar programs don’t necessarily fit in with things in Frederick County.
“We don’t have to have this polarized conversation about no police in schools and do away with the SRO program. Some of the conversations that are happening in Annapolis right now are not conversations that I think are productive in Frederick County,” Barrett said.
It wasn’t clear when county law enforcement agencies and FCPS will begin to collect more feedback from students and families regarding the program, but the topic is expected to be discussed again by board members.