Determined to pass meaningful legislation in the wake of the Parkland and Great Mills high school shootings, Maryland lawmakers are considering a measure to put an armed school resource officer in every public school. The bill comes as part of a four-bill package being rushed through the General Assembly as session nears end.
Advocates label this the “deterrence” stage of the package, which also includes prevention, anticipation and protection stages. Pushed by lead-sponsor Sen. Steve Waugh, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, proponents see this as the stopgap step while other proposals are considered and potentially implemented.
“(This bill is) the one that’s going to have the most immediate effect to reduce risks – today,” Waugh told Capital News Service.
There are just over 1,400 public schools in the state. Of those, the Maryland Center for School Safety estimates that between 360 and 400 already have a School Resource Officer, or SRO. But some local jurisdictions can’t afford to place an SRO in their schools. In those cases, the Department of State Police would then assign a state police officer.
The bill, which would go into effect July 1, calls for 1,000 new officers, roughly the amount it would take to fill the remaining schools. This is where it gets expensive.
The cost of stationing each state police officer would be roughly $224,300, according to a fiscal analysis – $101,617 for salary; $61,675 to complete State Police Academy training; $59,000 for a fully equipped police car; and $2,054 for uniforms and other equipment.
In total, the law would cost around $224 million in just the first year.
“Not everything is a quick fix, so you have to come up with a stopgap measure. This is it,” said co-sponsor Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore County and Harford. “It might be expensive, but you know what, these are our children. They need to be protected.”
While the bill has significant bipartisan support – Democratic Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s, is the third sponsor – it still faces some pushback.
Skeptics of the proposal make clear that they don’t question the motive, but the priority and funding.
Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery, questioned whether funding an SRO program is the best use of money to combat school shooters. Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, raised concerns that some children in over-policed areas are intimidated by officers and would struggle to concentrate in class.
It’s in everyone’s interest to keep children safe, Kelley said, but “not everything we’re talking about would make it so.”
Carroll County Sheriff Jeff Gahler said, to the contrary, an SRO presence improves the student-police dynamic. He’s been involved with the SRO program for nearly 20 years, and said he’s seen a positive impact.
“We’re working from those early ages to try to repair those relationships, where people are trying to put fear in the police,” Gahler told lawmakers. “The students trust the school resource officers and feed us information on all kinds of different crime issues facing our area. I think those relationships have to be fostered.”
Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, echoed the sheriff’s position. But he told the Capital News Service that funding is complicated and perhaps unfair. Counties have to prioritize how they spend local money, he said, so it wouldn’t be right if taxpayers had to front the bill for a county that didn’t prioritize SROs.
The other three school safety measures in the package have bipartisan support, each bill also with at least one Democratic and one Republican sponsor. But there’s a sense among some lawmakers that they’ve already been covered – at least in some part – in other pending legislation.
Here’s a brief breakdown of the other three proposals in the School Safety Act:
Senate bill 1262, sponsored by Miller, Waugh and Sen. John Astle, D-Anne Arundel, would call for closer investigations during gun-ownership background checks. It would establish a specialized workgroup to make quarterly recommendations on conducting background checks. Lastly, the bill would give local sheriffs a specialized school-crisis welfare officer. In all, it would cost roughly $1.8 million in the first year, an analysis found.
Senate bill 1263, sponsored by Waugh and Miller, would establish a “Threat Assessment Team,” comprised of a mental health counselor, teacher, principal, and possibly the state’s Department of Juvenile Services and the Department of Human Services, by the 2019-2020 school year, to evaluate students. It also expands prohibitions on making a threat of mass violence. General funding for the Maryland State Department of Education could increase by $125 million or more by the 2020 fiscal year, according to a state fiscal analysis. The state’s judicial system could pay more than $220,000 in the first year for programming costs, the analysis said.
Senate bill 1265, sponsored by Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County, Miller and Waugh, would require all public schools to have lockable classroom doors, an area of safe refuge (safe zone) in each classroom, and security technology by the 2020-2021 school year. It also calls for an active training drill for students in the first quarter of the fall semester. A pay-as-you-go bill, it would cost just over $10 million a year, from 2019 to 2023, according to a fiscal analysis.
Right now, the first three bills are pending in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, while Senate bill 1265 remains with the Senate Budget and Tax Committee. All four had hearings in late March and are awaiting committee votes to hit the full Senate floor.
With the 2018 session ending April 9, lawmakers know it will be difficult to prepare all four bills for passage. Waugh, the lead architect of the School Safety Act of 2018, said he doesn’t prioritize any proposal over the other, but maintained that the SRO part would provide more immediate safety.
“You can do it now and it will reduce risks,” he said. “Not completely, but it will reduce some risk right away.”
By Zach Shapiro