The so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” is not a reality in Charles County, according to Sheriff Troy D. Berry (D).
Berry made that comment during an update about the school resource officer program during the Oct. 13 board meeting of the Charles school board.
The sheriff’s office has 15 deputies stationed as school resource officers in schools throughout Charles County, along with two SRO program supervisors who are located in the school district’s central office.
The SRO program started in Charles County with one officer in 1999, according to Kathy Kiessling, the district’s director of student services.
During a recorded video for the school board, Berry noted that some local officials have mentioned the “school-to-prison pipeline” frequently. That narrative basically states that “if an officer arrests a juvenile, it could set a child up for a life of failure,” he said. “This concept concerns me.”
“The data doesn’t support the ... narrative” in Charles County, he said.
Berry noted that nearly 28,000 students attend Charles public schools. Over the last four years, there were 2,000-plus “arrest-able incidents” in the school system. “Two-thirds were handled within the school system ... so no arrest was made,” he said. “Less than 1% of students have an interaction with an officer that results in an arrest.”
Berry said that some local officials want to remove sheriff’s deputies from the schools.
“Our SROs are partners with our teachers, administrators and parents to help aid and mentor all children,” he said. Berry noted the sheriff’s office hosts football camps, a summer youth program and a ladies’ leadership soccer camp, citing a few examples.
During the administration of former President Barack Obama, Berry said members of the U.S. Department of Justice “shadowed our SROs and commented how impressed they were.”
Kiessling noted that the state’s Safe to Learn Act of 2018 requires law enforcement coverage of public schools. She said DOJ officials interviewed her and some students at John Hanson Middle School in Waldorf in 2014, when she was the school’s principal.
Karol Mason, who was then the assistant U.S. attorney general, recognized Charles County’s SRO program as “exemplar,” Kiessling said. “Since that time, we have just grown better.”
Erica Williams, principal at Benjamin Stoddert Middle School in Waldorf, said, “What [SROs] do to build relationships is phenomenal ... they make a huge difference for us in the building.”
School staff also noted that the county has a teen court diversionary program for first-time juvenile offenders that involves them seeing a jury of their peers.
“This is very timely,” board member Latina Wilson said following the presentation. “It is a discussion that is going on in the community: removing SROs from the schools. Legislators are entertaining and promoting this legislation.”
Wilson asked that local legislators have a discussion about the topic before they propose legislation that would end the SRO program.
“Everything I have heard about the Charles County Sheriff’s [Office] in the school system has been absolutely positive,” she said.
Wilson asked student board member Ian Herd for the “student perspective.”
“I think we do want a discussion on it,” he said. “I think there are people in the community who are hurting. There are students who are hurting and are not comfortable with the program.”
“It’s an extremely valuable program,” board member Michael Lukas said. “It all goes back to discipline and what we can do to correct bad behavior.”
“I remember exactly where I was when we had the horrible tragedy in St. Mary’s County,” board member David Hancock said, referring to the March 20, 2018, shootings of 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey and 14-year-old Desmond Barnes at Great Mills High School. The shooter, 17-year-old Austin Wyatt Rollins, was involved in a shooting with SRO Blaine Gaskill and died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to police. Willey died two days later after she was taken off life support.
“I remember thinking, ‘Thank God we have SROs in our schools,’” Hancock said. “My wife teaches in a very rural school. It’s very far away from any sheriff’s office. For those who want to take SROs out of schools, I hope they see the 37 slides of community outreach,” that were included in the school board presentation.
Hancock called removing SROs from schools “an awful idea.”
Board member Elizabeth Brown said she supports the SRO program. “I think it gets lumped into — everybody’s in the same boat as what’s going on around the state and country,” she said, referring to a call by some to “defund the police.”