Annapolis, MD – A controversial bill is making its way through the Maryland State House that would take school resource officers (SRO) out of uniform and out of school buildings across the state because their presence is “traumatizing” to minority students.
Maryland Senate Bill 245 would prohibit school resource officers from entering a school building except under certain circumstances and require them to wear civilian clothing and conceal their guns.
The proposed measure would establish requirements and prohibitions for school resource officers statewide, including prohibiting SROs from participating in routine school discipline.
Maryland Senator Arthur Ellis, who authored the legislation, told The Police Tribune that SB 245 wasn’t created to get rid of SROs but rather, to get them out of the routine discipline of students.
But Ellis also said during a Charles County Board of Education meeting with state legislators that he was concerned about the perception of the SROs by minority students following the “state-sponsored murder” of George Floyd by police.
“Can you imagine them going back to school now walking the hallways and seeing a police officer?” he asked during a virtual meeting on Nov. 30, 2020. “It’s traumatizing.”
An SRO with 10 years of campus experience told The Police Tribune that he thought officers being made to wear civilian clothing was dangerous and he would ask for a transfer if that became Maryland law.
“When we have multijurisdictional responses to emergencies at schools – and we do – it’s an all hands on deck situation,” the experienced SRO explained. “There’s no way that every officer or deputy or trooper who responds will recognize me. It’s an excellent way to get shot.”
He also said the presence of uniformed officers on campus serves as a deterrent to those who don’t belong on campus and makes students think twice about breaking the law at school.
When The Police Tribune shared that feedback with Ellis, who is a military veteran, he pointed out he was still able to amend his legislation.
“I can take that out – I’m willing to amend the bill and take the uniform out,” the senator offered.
The proposed legislation would also require SROs to be based outside of school buildings and would only permit them to enter to use the restroom, to provide instruction on something, or when “summoned by a school administrator or official to respond to an emergency involving violence or the threat of violence.”
Multiple sources told The Police Tribune that making SROs stay outside puts them in a reactive instead of proactive position when something bad, such as an active shooter situation, occurs.
“In cases where officers were nearby and intervened, lives have been saved,” one veteran SRO said. “Seconds make a different in those situations. And we’ve seen that proven out time and again.”
But the senator who proposed SB 245 said having officers inside the schools was non-negotiable.
“The inside is a sticking point,” Ellis told The Police Tribune. “Schools are places where children go to learn. If we have schools that are combat zones, we need to fix that problem before we put a police officer in there with students and teachers.”
He said that having the SROs inside schools made it more likely they would become involved in routine school discipline matters that weren’t part of their purview.
But several school resources officers from different counties in Maryland told The Police Tribune that’s already the policy and it was school administrators who kept trying to drag officers into school discipline matters.
One SRO told The Police Tribune he was regularly called to the principal’s office to deal with students who have violated school rules, but have not actually broken any laws.
He said he felt administrators were trying to use SROs to establish the authority they lacked with students who had no respect for them and said he and most officers assigned to schools preferred to be left entirely out of non-criminal matters.
But he also said that he couldn’t refuse the principal’s request to stand there while the discipline was being given out if his presence had been requested.
“More than once I had to explain to the principal at the first school I was assigned to that I don’t enforce school rules – my job is to enforce state and local law, not school discipline,” he told The Police Tribune.
Bumping heads with the principal resulted in a transfer to another school at the end of the year, according to the officer.
Ellis acknowledged that school administrators could be part of the problem and said codifying the role of the SROs would help solve that problem.
“So we make sure everyone understand the rules of engagement,” he explained. “We need clear rules, clear lines of responsibilities. And we need the officers to tell principals that they can’t do things that aren’t law enforcement matters. Refuse to criminalize it.”
The senator put the onus of enforcing his proposed law on the back of the officers themselves.
Ellis said officers needed to tell school administrators to “use your suspension and detention powers. Call the parents and the [Pupil Personnel Worker (PPW)] – you have a lot of say in doing that instead of criminalizing this child’s bad behavior.”
Under Maryland law, PPWs are teachers who have been certified to partner with troubled students and act as their advocates, he explained.
He told The Police Tribune that additional funding needed to be put into “prevention instead of reaction.”
But Maryland Delegate Matt Morgan called SB 245 a dangerous “social experiment.”
“It sounds like a social experiment, and if he can point to an area where that approach has been successful, I’d be happy to look at it,” Morgan told The Police Tribune. “Right now we need to work with what is proven to keep our children safe.”
“When things happened at the Capitol, I don’t remember the politicians calling up a bunch of social workers,” he added.