Montgomery County officials, police and parents are hopeful that the fiscal 2013 operating budget will allow the county to increase police staffing where they say it could have the greatest impact on public safety: in public schools.
"Many of our high schools are virtual cities, many with over 2,000 students and hundreds of staff per school," said Susan Burkinshaw, an advocate of the school resource officer program and co-chair of the Safety and Health Committee of the county council of PTAs. "We don’t need officers in our schools because our schools are not safe; we need officers in our schools to keep our schools and communities safe."
With recent budget cuts, school resource officers—traditionally a police officer stationed within high schools—have been limited to one officer per police district.
With the exception of Gaithersburg High School, which maintains its own Gaithersburg city police officer at the school, every high school in the county must now share six SROs. Schools fill the security gap left by SRO cuts by hiring security officials such as retired police officers. But that's not enough, Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger said.
"They don't have the authority nor the resources to help these kids that the SROs bring to the community," Manger told the council’s Public Safety Committee in January. "My concern is not just keeping crime out of the schools [or] having some place for the kids to report something that's going on. You can use security personnel to do that. But having the ability to follow up [with a police officer] does make a difference.
"An incremental increase over the next few years would have huge impact in terms of our ability to deal with youth on so many different issues."
The SRO program is designed to enhance the safety and security of the learning environment for students, staff and the school community. School resource officers assist with incidents in their designated schools and routinely meet with parents, teachers, students and staff to discuss emergency preparedness and public safety in schools.
"A lot of this is being a friend to kids. [Officers] know what the schedules are of surrounding schools and when their lunch periods are," said council member Craig Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown. "It's all about community policing, which goes so far beyond just having an officer walk through a community."
Because officers are in the schools and talking with kids, they are much better positioned to prevent crimes before they happen, including after-school fights and drug and alcohol issues, Rice said. In Frederick County, a school resource officer got a tip about a gun in school and was able to stop a possible disaster from occurring by confronting the student before anything happened.
"With this next operating budget I'm hopeful we'll be able to fund a full complement of school resource officers back into the school system," Rice said. Council member Phil Andrews (D-Dist. 5) of Gaithersburg, chairman of the council’s public safety committee, has partnered with Rice in gathering information about the SRO program and is also hopeful to see it reinstated.
In anticipation of the program’s growth, the council is working with Montgomery County Public Schools on a policy to address concerns of principals and administrators about how SROs are assigned and evaluated.
Under the direction of former County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), and amid heightened concern for school safety after the attack at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, Montgomery County applied for a federal grant to fund its first school resource officers, according to Burkinshaw. The county's first in-school officer program, which began in 2002, was called the educational facilities officers program. It grew to involve six sergeants and 27 officers covering all 25 Montgomery County high schools and six of the county's middle schools.
Data released by Montgomery County Public Schools show that the number of serious incidents reported in schools has dropped by nearly 40 percent since the 2001-02 school year, when the school officer program was established. A total of 136,832 students were enrolled in MCPS during the 2001-02 school year and 7,104 serious incidents were reported. In the 2010-11 school year, with 144,064 students enrolled, 4,475 serious incidents were reported.
In 2010, the county began to face budget pressure and the $2.6 million program was cut to nine officers. In 2011, it was cut again to six officers, leaving one per police district, and renamed the School Resource Officer program, Burkinshaw said.
"There were a lot of questions about autonomy when it came to who would be in charge of the SROs and who would pay for them," Rice said. "Our police had to make a very difficult decision with putting more officers in the streets or increasing a presence in the schools."