School resource officers in Maryland may soon only enter schools mainly during an emergency — a plan the bill sponsor says will help minority students feel more comfortable, but police say presents safety concerns.
Senate Bill 0245, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles), establishes numerous restrictions on school resource officers in what he told Capital News Service is a plan to ensure students, especially those of color, feel more comfortable at school.
School resource officers are career law enforcement officers assigned to specific schools for protection and community-oriented policing, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers.
The Maryland Safe to Learn Act of 2018 required schools to prove they either have a designated school resource officer or “adequate local law enforcement coverage.”
This year’s bill establishes guidelines prohibiting school resource officers from entering schools “except under certain circumstances.”
Ellis said the allowed circumstances of entering the school would primarily entail emergencies or routine uses such as the restroom, under the proposed law.
The bill also requires that school officers wear street clothes rather than a police uniform, while concealing their firearm unless needed.
Clyde Boatwright, president of the Maryland State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police, told CNS his organization plans to testify against the bill due to concerns over school safety.
“It would put our schools in great danger for attacks from the outside if we didn’t have our school officers staged in the building,” he told CNS.
A school resource officer responded to a fatal shooting at Great Mills High School in 2018 within one minute, returning a single round of fire before the shooter, who killed one student and wounded another, committed suicide.
St. Mary’s County Sheriff Tim Cameron, who oversees the Great Mills High School jurisdiction, told CNS that school resource officers were greatly respected by his community even before the heroic acts of school resource officer Blaine Gaskill.
Cameron (R) said Ellis’ bill takes away the essential community aspect of the school resource officer program, making the officers nothing more than bodyguards for hire.
“With those conditions, what’s the point?” the sheriff told CNS. “They would no longer fulfill what I believe are the tenets of the program: to be a resource for the students, teachers, and staff. You’ve designated them to parking lot duty in plain clothes. They can’t even be a visible deterrent.”
Boatwright added that if school officers are required to wear street clothing, they could be falsely perceived as a threat in the event of a lockdown, putting them in unnecessary danger when additional police arrive.
The Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs committee held a hearing on the bill Wednesday, where a number of organizations testified for and against the bill.
Southern Marylanders for Racial Equality, Public Justice Center, and Schools Not Jails testified in favor of the bill, with certain amendments, expressing concerns with arrests of students made by school officers and noting that funding to the program would be better spent on mental health resources for students.
Local school boards in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties considered putting an end to school resource officer programs last year, WTOP reported.
The Maryland Association of Boards of Education testified against the bill due to concerns over the state legislature mandating local school policies, while the National Association of School Resource Officers testified to the effectiveness of the school resource officer program as is.
The Maryland Sheriffs Association and Maryland Chiefs Association will also be opposing the bill, Sheriff Darren Popkin (D-Montgomery) told CNS.
Ellis told CNS the main focus of his bill is to ensure officers have no part in any discipline in schools, which could damage the mental health of students.
The issue, he said, is that there is a lack of guidelines as to when the officers are allowed to intervene with students.
“Schools are for learning,” he said. “We cannot treat schools like we treat prisons. Especially schools with majority Black students — these schools are treated like prisons.”
Boatwright, who worked 18 years for the Baltimore City School Police, said he agrees with Ellis that discipline is not the role of school officers.
“The police officer is not a disciplinarian,” he told CNS. “A uniformed police officer is there to provide safety and not to be a part of the discipline process.”
Boatwright said when working in Baltimore schools, there were guidelines as to whether officers or administrators were meant to intervene in specific school disputes.
These sorts of guidelines, he said, should be up to local school jurisdictions, not lawmakers in Annapolis.
The bill, according to Ellis, is inspired by the recent national awareness of police brutality, most notably the death of George Floyd, and how these events affect young people of color.
Having an officer in a school building, Ellis said, can create a source of anxiety for students.
“They represent brutality to these young men and young women and it hinders their learning,” he told CNS.
Boatwright said that his experience in the city schools reflected a different story.
“In some communities like Baltimore city, some of the first interactions that our young people have with police officers are usually negative ones,” he told CNS. “However, they turn around and have a different relationship with a school resource officer. That helps to build the relationship with schools and law enforcement.”