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OPINION: Blubaugh: Safer schools or mental health? Why can't students have both? | COMMENTARY
Carroll County Times - 2/15/2021
Feb. 14—My oldest daughter never sold drugs or brought in a weapon or took part in bloody brawls when she was in middle school. But that doesn't mean she never had any interaction with the student resource officer at her school.
She recalls the SROs who rotated through as being known by the students. One day, when she and a friend came upon a fire in a bathroom trash can, she ran directly to the SRO, who took off toward the flame and dispatched her to grab an extinguisher.
Her limited but positive experience with the SRO program is probably not dissimilar from most students around Carroll County. Students in other areas, of course, aren't necessarily having the same experience.
That the SRO was in her school at all was largely because of what happened three years ago today, when a gunman killed 17 and wounded 17 others at a Parkland, Florida high school. Shortly after, another shooter killed one and wounded one at Great Mills High School in St. Mary's County before an SRO intervened. And shortly after, Maryland lawmakers passed the Safe to Learn Act to significantly beef up security in schools, essentially mandating SROs in many.
With school safety, apparently, no longer as much of a priority during the ongoing session of the Maryland General Assembly, the SRO program is viewed much differently. As legislators debate bills designed to drastically alter or do away with police officers in Maryland public schools, many around Carroll — from parents to educators to elected officials — are wondering why.
I am, too, although I might feel entirely differently if my kids went to school in Prince George's or Montgomery counties, where a wildly disproportionate number of minority students were arrested during 2018-19 school year, according to the Maryland State Department of Education's most recent data. Or in Washington County, a school system smaller than Carroll's where 10 times as many students were arrested that year.
One of the bills, sponsored by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, D-Montgomery, would repeal state funding for SROs and law enforcement coverage and use the $10 million to enhance mental health services for students.
Is it just me or is it wrongheaded to present this as an either-or situation, with safer schools behind Door No. 1 and better adjusted kids behind Door No. 2?
"No, I do not believe it is an either-or situation," Amy Jagoda, the school system's coordinator of mental health and student services said Friday via email, limiting her comments to Carroll's situation. "SROs support the work of the school-based mental health providers. They have supported students in crisis by doing wellness checks on students at home when school staff had concerns about their mental state and safety. They have also taken students to the hospital when they were in crisis. Students in these difficult situations were helped through the strong collaboration between the school-based mental health providers and their SROs."
Jagoda said she thinks CCPS is better equipped to help students' mental health as a result of the Safe to Learn Act. She said the school system provides ongoing training for staff and has a process to refer students for support. She developed a Safe Schools Module to help staff recognize signs of potential mental health concerns and how to connect students with help. Additionally, she says counselors and psychologists have been training school staff and families on mental health-related topics. Her position alone provides an additional resource.
Jagoda's entire job is geared toward supporting the mental health of students. If the presence of an armed SRO was detrimental to those students mentally or emotionally, in her professional opinion, one assumes she would say so. She says the opposite.
"I cannot speak for how SROs are utilized across the state of Maryland but in Carroll County, our SROs are positive members of our school communities," she said. "They know the students in their schools. They talk to them in the hallways and lunch. Sometimes they even play basketball with them. Having SROs in our schools shows law enforcement in a positive light. Students aren't seeing them for the first time if they or a family member is in crisis. Our SROs are seen as someone you can trust and go to if you need help; and our students have reached out to them in that way."
So, maybe safety and mental health aren't mutually exclusive?
Hopefully the counties will continue to receive Safe to Learn funding from the state, albeit allowing for local decision-makers to determine how best to use it. Lawmakers probably shouldn't have told school systems they had to have SROs three years ago, but they surely shouldn't turn around now and tell them they can't.
Bob Blubaugh is the editor of the Carroll County Times. His column appears Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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