Parents, school officials and police say Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett’s plan to double police presence in high schools is the first step to revamping a valued program.
In his proposal to the Montgomery County Council, Leggett recommended adding six school resource officers, to make for 12 county school resource officers total for next budget year.
“It’s like baby steps,” said Susan Burkinshaw, co-chair of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations health and safety committee.
Burkinshaw has been leading the charge to get the positions reinstated since 2010, when the program was first cut from 26 officers to nine.
As is, the school resource officer program is “bordering on ineffective,” Burkinshaw said.
To work, she said, officers need to build relationships in schools and be proactive. Right now, officers rotate their time between five or six schools in each police district.
Overall, Leggett is asking for a 4 percent increase to his police budget, requesting 40 more staff members, as part of his three-year plan to increase his police force by 134. The council will finalize the budget in May.
The December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., refocused the county’s attention on restoring the school resource officer positions.
The MCCPTA wants to see that each of the county’s 25 high schools and 40 middle schools have a full-time school resource officer, and at a March 19 community meeting, county police Chief J. Thomas Manger said he hopes for the same thing.
County police Officer Jeremy Wojdan, a school resource officer in the 5th District, along with Poolesville Principal Deena Levine, agree with Burkinshaw that the effectiveness of the program depends on the quality of the officer in the school.
School administration wants the officers to get to know students, Levine said.
“It could be a very strong partnership with the right match,” she said.
Even with the new spots, “positive changes” need to happen for the program to be effective, Wojdan said.
The county should make sure the people in these positions want to serve the community and perform the job, he said.
“I think big picture, it’s great,” he said. “We just need to create an effective program with effective SROs.”
Levine thinks principals should be involved in choosing the officer for their school.
Along with the 12 county officers in schools, the city of Gaithersburg has kept an officer in Gaithersburg High school throughout budget cuts.
The city’s police department realizes the importance of maintaining relationships with schools, said Officer Dan Lane, Gaithersburg’s police spokesman.
“If there are talks of fights or talks of other incidents — burglaries or robberies — that kids hear about, they tell [the officer] and he passes it back to us,” Lane said.
In 2011, a year after the SROs were cut to nine, Leggett recommended nixing the program completely, but the County Council agreed to save six of the positions. The last two budget cycles, the program has been maintained.
At a January meeting hosted by the MCCPTA, County Council Vice President Craig L. Rice (D-Dist. 2) promised parents that the number of county officers would double next school year, as Leggett has recommended.
The current cost to provide a new officer to a school is, on average, about $158,800, according to Leggett’s proposal. The total cost for next year to add the six officers is $952,905, including $446,508 for personnel costs; $138,423 for operating expenses such as one-time purchases for new employees, and maintenance costs for vehicles; and $367,974 for six vehicles and vehicle equipment, said Bruce R. Meier of the county’s office of management and budget.
Burkinshaw said the cost is worth it.
“You have to look at the bang for the buck you get when you have the officers in the schools,” she said. “They interact with 3,000 students a day.”
Staff writer Daniel Leaderman contributed to this report.