Howard Board of Education adds mental health positions to budget to assist school resource officer program

Jacob Calvin Meyer, Howard County Times, Columbia, Md.
·5 min read

Feb. 24—The Howard County Board of Education on Monday approved changes to the system's school resource officer program, including adding mental health positions.

The vote, which passed 4-3, added a "safety and security" program into the system's fiscal 2022 budget by adding 22 full-time positions, including 18 mental health therapists and four alternative education teachers.

Per the motion raised by Chair Chao Wu, the district will make changes to the program on top of the new positions — which will cost $2.2 million — and plan to keep school resource officers, who are paid for out of the county police department's budget.

"If school resource officers are retained, I still believe we need to provide that level of fortification of positions to help with the mental health issues, to be preventive and to be in line with restorative practices to assist our young people," Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said. "I firmly believe those positions are needed to address that in the event that [school resource officers] are kept and we shift how we do business."

The changes made Monday, however, do not decide the fate of the school resource officer — or SRO — program. That vote is expected to happen before April 29, when the board will decide whether to approve a revised agreement — a memorandum of understanding — between the school system and the police department for the SRO program.

"The motion the board is making is to add the funding to the budget. This isn't making the decision on a direction," said Jahantab Siddiqui, the school system's chief administrative officer. "That will be on April 29."

There is also pending legislation in the Maryland General Assembly — filed by Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, who represents Howard County in District 13 — to remove SROs statewide.

If no agreement is approved by the county school board, then — per a previous board vote from January — no SROs can be in school buildings when students return for hybrid in-person learning starting March 1.

"I think one reason we asked for this is there's a possibility the state legislature will ask us to remove SROs," Wu said. "The other reason is for us to have different options for the school system to provide security and other services to our students in need. We need to build this into our budget."

Wu and members Yun Lu, Christina Delmont-Small and Vicky Cutroneo voted for the motion Monday, while Vice Chair Jen Mallo and members Jolene Mosley and Antonia Barkley Watts voted against it.

Student member Zach Koung — whose motion last September sparked the monthslong debate in the county — could not vote on the measure because it was related to the budget.

Student members in Howard County can vote on most topics except those involving redistricting, personnel, legal issues, the budget and "other restricted matters," according to the school system's website. Koung could vote on previous SRO matters because the program exists in the police department's budget, not the school system's. This motion, however, involved money in the fiscal 2022 budget, meaning he could not vote.

Having police officers in the county's middle and high schools has been a topic of conversation in Howard County since the youth-led racial justice protests this past summer, and the board has discussed and voted on the program several times since September.

The school system defines resource officers as "police officers who assist the school administration in analyzing law enforcement problems in schools, investigating criminal incidents and building positive relationships with students and staff while providing a safe school environment and deterrence to crime."

The program, which was established in 1996 after the death of a staff member who experienced a medical emergency while intervening in a fight, currently has 19 SROs — one for all 12 public high schools and the Homewood Center, and six officers who split 12 middle schools. There are no SROs in elementary schools; however, elementary and middle school administrators can receive coverage and assistance from police when needed.

The 12 middle schools that split six resource officers are: Mayfield Woods, Patuxent Valley, Wilde Lake, Harper's Choice, Lake Elkhorn, Oakland Mills, Murray Hill, Hammond, Thomas Viaduct, Elkridge Landing, Bonnie Branch and Ellicott Mills. Last fall, Koung questioned the selection of those schools and noted that those 12 middle schools were the ones with the highest percentage of Black students in the county.

Resource officers have not been in Howard County schools since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered school buildings 11 months ago. The district's nearly 57,000 students have been learning online since last April, but for two months in the fall, small groups of students were in programs in 26 Howard County school buildings without SROs.

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Following the failed motion in September, the board set up a schedule with multiple board discussions, town halls and focus groups on the SRO program. Then in October, the Howard County administrators union supported keeping the school resource officer program.

"There are certain marginalized communities that have negative relationships or feelings about law enforcement," Robert Motley, the union's vice president and principal at Atholton High School, said late last year. "What better way to improve that than through this program?"

Last month, the board approved motions that determined no SROs would be in school buildings until a new agreement was forged and requiring Martirano to develop two different plans for the board to consider.

Martirano presented the two plans Monday, one of which the board approved. The plan the board did not vote on was to remove the SRO program and replace officers with 58 full-time positions in the budget — 36 security assistants on top of the 22 positions in the other plan — that would have cost $4.7 million.

Mallo, Mosley and Watts wanted to add the security assistants to the option the board approved, but the motion failed.

"We seriously need to address mental health, irrespective of what we do with SROs," Watts said. "... I can't see why we're coupling mental health with cops. It seems disingenuous, actually. These things should be pulled apart, and we should take care of the mental health needs of our children, and we can deal with the security in a different way."