As thousands of children returned to public school buildings throughout Frederick County this week, two bills in the statehouse would, if passed, fundamentally impact one of the central frameworks of school safety: school resource officers.
Local Republicans were against the proposals, which seek to eliminate school resource officers (SROs) in favor of more counselors, psychologists and social workers. Those changes are laid out in House Bill 496, which had a hearing in that chamber's Ways and Means Committee earlier this month.
There also is Senate Bill 245, a much shorter bill that doesn't propose eliminating SROs, but does propose some changes, like:
- Restricting public school building access to SROs, unless they are called on by school officials to respond to an emergency, are participating in instruction led by another school official, or need to use a restroom
- SROs may not participate in the "routine school discipline of a student"
- Those officers must be in plain clothes, not in uniform
Lt. Jason Deater, who has spent about 18 years in the Frederick County Sheriff's Office and about a year as commander of the SRO program, said there are currently 14 deputies in the program. The Frederick and Brunswick police departments are a few of the other local agencies that provide school resource officers, he added.
Deater said there are often "misconceptions" about the program in that people believe officers are only reporting to schools where there are emergencies or bad incidents.
Deputies are only involved in school discipline if they see a fight in progress at a school, Deater said.
"School security is just a small part of what we do ... What better ways are there than to have police officers in a school, [in] that they can make contact with students daily," Deater said. "These are not negative contacts. They are normal, everyday contacts."
Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick) was a teacher at Yellow Springs Elementary School before he ran for mayor of Frederick in the 1970s. In 2018, his colleague, Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick and Carroll) successfully added an amendment to the Maryland Safe to Learn Act, requiring that all public elementary, middle and high schools have adequate law enforcement coverage.
Young supported that amendment and the overall bill. He's unsure if he would support changes laid out in the House bill, but he did acknowledge many schools need more counselors and related staff.
Ultimately, Young believes local school boards should probably make the decision versus a statewide bill.
"I like the local jurisdiction … [and] school boards to make those decisions, and they can respond better to the local citizens in terms of what they want, as opposed to what I want," Young said.
Hough, however, was quick to criticize the House bill, noting it would be a reversal of what the General Assembly did with the Safe to Learn Act. He doesn't think it's likely the bill will pass, at least in its current form.
He is in support of more counselors and similar employees in school buildings, but said eliminating school resource officers would be a bad decision. He noted when law enforcement discovered a plot for a school shooting at Catoctin High School in 2017.
"I would say removing SROs from schools is a uniquely terrible idea ... Speaking as a father, it’s abhorrent we would remove security in any way from our schools," Hough said.
Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick and Carroll) was also opposed to the idea of removing school resource officers. Like Hough, he understands demand for more counselors and psychologists.
But Pippy added that aspects in the Senate bill could also cause issues. For instance, school resource officers in uniform versus in plain clothes might act as a deterrent for people targeting schools. Del. Barrie Ciliberti (R-Frederick and Carroll) agreed.
"It’s disappointing because I think people are putting politics over school safety," Pippy said of the overall proposals. "I think our school resource officers provide an important service in our community and I just think going back to the politics or school safety component, we shouldn’t be doing that, especially with our kids."
Del. Carol Krimm (D-Frederick) wants to hear from Frederick County parents and see what the actual final version of the House bill is.
Some issues in schools in larger jurisdictions involving school resource officers may not apply to Frederick County, she said, but at the same time, those officers might need more training and de-escalation skills and need to be able to offer better solutions, and parents might feel reluctant to report any concerns from students.
In any case, she needs to hear further debate before she takes a stance.
"These are big policy decisions we're going to be talking about with police reform," Krimm said. "And there's going to be a lot of testimony, a lot of discussion among the delegates. And I learn a lot from my peers."
Two Frederick County Council members, Jessica Fitzwater (D) and Jerry Donald (D) are teachers for Frederick County Public Schools: Fitzwater, a music teacher at Oakdale Elementary, and Donald, a history/government teacher at Middletown High School.
Fitzwater said she hadn't reviewed the bills in the statehouse, as she was preparing for hybrid instruction, which started this week. Since she is at an elementary school, she has not had as much experience with the program.
Donald, however, said Middletown High School has had a great partnership with the program, calling it "community policing at its best."
While he was in favor of local school boards making the decision on the overall program and how it's used, Donald said school resource officers aren't the only solution to deal with crisis situations, or students experiencing mental health issues.
"I would like to see more teachers in classrooms with fewer kids, [so] you get to know the students better," Donald said. "[But] I know that's not an answer to all mental health issues."
Both the House and Senate bills have had hearings in their respective committees, but no committee votes have been held yet.