ANNAPOLIS — Just two days before a planned national march to end gun violence in schools, a Maryland House committee heard testimony on a proposal that would dramatically expand the Maryland Center for School Safety’s role and increase its funding.
The measure before the House Ways and Means Committee, House Bill 1816, would require local school systems to complete annual safety assessments and develop an emergency plan, subject to the approval of the Maryland Center for School Safety and the state school board.
The bill, like this weekend’s March for Our Lives, comes in response to the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and launched a renewed debate over school safety and gun control. The hearing on Gov. Larry Hogan’s measure Thursday gained a renewed sense of urgency in the wake of a shooting at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County earlier this week.
If the bill becomes law, local school districts would need to create a behavioral threat assessment team that would guide students, faculty and staff to recognize the risk a person may pose to the school. The team would also be charged with identifying and reporting threatening behavior.
While leaders of both chambers have encouraged passage of the bill, several delegates expressed concerns about the details Thursday. Delegate Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s) said it was important that implicit bias training be part of any curriculum in order to ensure school resource officers, staff and teachers responded to each student fairly.
Delegate Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery) also voiced concern about bias and said preventing violence before it occurs should be the priority for school safety. Hogan’s chief legislative officer, Chris Shank, said that supporting school resource officers would help that because good officers would become familiar with the community and understand the potential problems.
The reporting component of the behavioral threat assessment team concerned Delegate Jason Buckel (R-Allegany). He asked the panel, which agreed with the idea, if they would support changing the bill to require that worrisome behavior be reported to mental health professionals when appropriate.
The bill would further require school systems to designate a security administrator who has been certified by the Maryland Center for School Safety.
If passed into law, the center would need to develop a statewide training program to certify school resource officers. Under current law, the 350 or so police officers working in Maryland schools can receive training specific to working in that environment, but are not required to, according to the Department of Legislative Services.
Edward Clarke, executive director of the Maryland Center for School Safety, said that in an emergency, teachers are the first responders, but not all are trained equally. The proposed legislation, he said, would make sure that they’re prepared and trained to respond to mental health issues.
To help the center tackle these responsibilities, the bill increases its state funding sixfold, from $500,000 to $3 million starting in fiscal 2020.
Hogan also set aside a proposed $10 million in his latest supplemental budget to provide school safety grants to help school systems carry out their safety plans. That was in addition to $125 million in funding for school safety enhancements, $50 million per year in school safety grants and $5 million in school safety funding in a previous supplemental budget.
Frederick County Public Schools spokesman Michael Doerrer said that each school in the county has an emergency plan customized for each campus, made in collaboration with school administrators and the Office of Security and Emergency Management. Each school conducts training and drills annually.
While the funding for the Office of Security and Emergency Management has fluctuated in recent years, it more than doubled between fiscal 2014 and the allocation for fiscal 2018 — from $298,000 to $603,000. That does not take into account capital safety improvements such as vestibules or cameras.
When asked if more state funding is needed to improve school safety, Doerrer said, “Whenever we receive funds to enhance school safety, we make measurable progress in improving the safety in our school,” adding later, “I think Frederick County Public Schools are very safe.”
During the House Ways and Means hearing on Hogan’s bill, committee Chair Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery) called out the governor for his statement, reported by Maryland Matters, accusing the General Assembly of not moving fast enough on the bill.
Kaiser said that, considering it was introduced March 7, the bill had been fast-tracked to the committee.