To ensure school safety in all 24 Maryland counties and Baltimore City, the governor’s legislative staff and supporters pushed Thursday for more mental health counselors, security technology and school resource officers.
School resource officers (SROs) are armed during the school day and at extracurricular events, said Edward A. Clarke, executive director of the Maryland Center for School Safety.
“Schools are still a very safe place, but we have to do better,” said Clarke, a retired Montgomery County police officer.
Clarke, along with three members of Gov. Larry Hogan’s legislative team and state Superintendent Karen B. Salmon, testified at a hearing Thursday about the proposed Safe Schools Act legislation.
Hogan announced the emergency bill last month to provide $175 million that includes $125 million in capital improvements at schools and $50 million to pay for SROs, counselors and other technology.
Thursday’s discussion comes two days after a 17-year-old student at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County shot two other students inside the school just as the school day began. A school resource officer is credited with ending the situation by firing his weapon at the gunman.
Delegate Alonzo Washington (D-District 22) of Hyattsville said eight counties and Baltimore City don’t have school resource officers. He asked if every jurisdiction would need to hire a school resource officer.
Clarke said it wouldn’t be a requirement for every school system to employ SROs, but a local law enforcement could hire a SRO and the state would provide training for each person.
A spokesman for Prince George’s County Public Schools said in an email Friday that county police serve as SROs in all the high schools and some middle schools.
The legislation proposes more mental health professionals in each school. That would mean 209 mental health counselors would need be in Prince George’s, said Adrian Talley, executive director of student services for the county’s school system. In addition, he said, the person hired wouldn’t be able to do the same duties as a school counselor and school psychologist.
For example, Talley said, a high school counselor helps students with class schedules, college applications and scholarships, while the responsibilities of a psychologist include helping identify students who need special education services and crisis intervention. Both positions offer grief counseling, learning how to make friends and other mental health concerns.
“From a positive standpoint, it would provide additional resources that could [help] children directly,” he said.
As for whether the state, or county, would for pay to hire all 209 mental health counselors, “it is unclear right now,” Talley said.
The legislation also requests each local school board have a behavioral assessment team to recognize any actions that may be deemed harmful to a school and community. In addition, implement policies so the team can report any actions to school staff or law enforcement.
The state board of education would consult with the state’s Center for School Safety to adopt regulations to train staff assigned to an assessment team.
“I do not think it is an over-the-top request to ensure all school systems have this,” Salmon said.
The bill also proposes to house a school safety center in four locations: Western and Southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore and Bowie State University. Some of the functions of these centers to collaborate with school systems, law enforcement, parents, government officials and nonprofit organizations:
• creating a database with up-to-date information on school safety strategies;
• developing a website complete with books, videos and other school safety resources;
• preparing an annual report on school safety for public review.
Delegate Jay Walker, who helped establish the state’s Center for School Safety in 2013, asked if the main headquarters in Baltimore County could be relocated elsewhere.
Christopher Skank, chief legislative officer in the governor’s office, said the law enforcement agencies housed at the center agree with its proximity to Baltimore and D.C.
“It must stay there,” Skank said.
“I will disagree with that, but that’s fine,” Walker said. “If we are going to seriously handle school safety, it can’t be one size fits all.”