A group of Frederick County Public School alumni and students who spent the summer demanding more accountability from the school system on issues of racism are now calling for a re-examination of the presence of School Resource Officers (SROs) in school buildings.
The group, called “End Racism FCPS”, held a virtual town hall over the weekend to talk about SROs and the effect they have on students of color.
“The presence of SROs perpetuates the dehumanization and criminalization of Black and brown students across the United States and in Frederick County,” Sirad Hassan, a lead organizer of End Racism FCPS said in an email.
The group’s town hall came just weeks after the Frederick County Board of Education received an overview of the SRO program and how it has grown since its establishment in 1995.
FCPS has 16 SROs throughout the county—one in each feeder pattern.
The Frederick Police Department, Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, and Brunswick Police Department all provide officers.
Scott Blundell, supervisor of Security and Emergency Management for FCPS, said the goal of the program is to provide a uniformed presence inside school buildings, foster relationships between themselves, students, staff, and the community, and aid in crime prevention.
The program, widely referred to as one of the best in the state, was greatly expanded in 2018 after the Maryland Safe to Learn Act mandated that each school system designate a school safety coordinator and provide law enforcement coverage in all schools.
Blundell said the SROs in Frederick County provide a wide array of support from physical security checks to participation in restorative practice circles and presentations in the classrooms.
Sheriff’s deputies and Frederick City Police Officers who currently serve as SROs recalled forming good relationships with students and said they enjoy being in school buildings.
However, the issue of student perception was brought up. Board members Liz Barrett and Karen Yoho both said student perception data is critical to the conversation. Barrett also asked if SROs are required to go through FCPS’s implicit bias training.
Lt. Mike Easterday, commander of the SROs from the Sheriff’s Office, said his deputies go through their own training but not anything from FCPS.
End Racism FCPS argue SROs make students of color feel threatened and uncomfortable. They held the town hall to provide a safe space for parents, students, and community members to share their feelings on the program.
“With everything going on in the news surrounding police officers in general, I think that this conversation is crucial to the school environment, and I think that, if anything, allowing people to voice their opinions is the bare minimum of what FCPS should be doing,” Amya Diggs, a lead organizer for End Racism FCPS said.
But the town hall didn’t include many student or alumni testimonies. A majority of the hour-long event was dedicated to presentations by guest speakers who spoke about topics such as the school-to-prison pipeline, institutional racism, racial disparities, and adverse childhood experiences that affect students of color.
Hassan said she hopes the presentations will cause a mindset shift for those who cannot imagine schools without the presence of SROs. Many think of SRO’s as bringing safety to a school, but it actually has the opposite effect, she said.
“There is no significant data that shows that SROs prevent school shootings, but there is data on how the presence of SROs causes more students, proportionally greater numbers who are Black and brown, to be sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline, unfortunately,” Hassan said.
When asked how schools are to remain safe and secure if SROs are removed, Hassan said it’s important for FCPS, board members and other elected officials will think outside the box.
“It is imperative...to consider evidence-based alternatives and restorative justice programs that prioritize having especially BIPOC [Black, indigenous, people of color] mental health counselors who are both trained and able to help those students,” Hassan said.
Diggs pointed out that a large amount of funding is put toward the SRO program and that if officers were removed from schools this funding could be redirected toward more educational and mental health resources to support students and prevent violence.
The school system received approximately $2.4 million from the county this year to support the SRO program, according to the recently approved FCPS Fiscal Year 2021 Operating Budget.
The organizers know that a sudden nullification of the program may not be possible but they want to open up the conversation and explore an alternate world where school buildings can be secure while students of color do not feel threatened.
“We need to have an honest conversation about this and I don’t think...there has been an honest conversation about this outside the organizing circles so having this platform is something I believe is really important,” Hassan said.