Montgomery County Police are looking to expand a program that places its officers in schools, but some County Council members have concerns about the program’s cost and the necessity of its growth.
County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said during a Oct. 24 joint meeting of the County Council’s Education and Public Safety committees that he aims to continue building up the county’s school resource officer program to its status before budget cuts in recent years.
“My intention is to get the program back to where it was,” Manger said. “We’re well on our way doing that.”
But County Councilman Marc Elrich said he is not sure the officer program is the best place to put the county’s limited resources.
“I continue to have some heartburn over this program,” said Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park. “This is an extraordinary amount of money we’re talking about.”
Bruce R. Meier of the county’s office of management and budget said in March that the recent addition of six officers to the program cost about $952,900.
County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin said the county has recently cut youth programs “substantially,” while directing more money to the officer program.
“I don’t think this is a panacea,” Ervin said of the officer program. “I don’t think everything is going to come to the attention of the SRO.”
The county could help kids through the youth programs that keep them “safe and engaged” and help address problems “where they start,” Elrich said.
Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring also said she hasn’t seen many incidents reported at schools that would necessitate more officers.
“Until we see data that backs up the need for SROs, I’m going to continue to be a pitbull on this thing,” she said.
During the 2009-2010 school year, the program included 33 budgeted resource officer positions, according to the program’s coordinator, Sgt. Suzanne Harrell.
The program, however, was slashed in July 2010 to nine officers and later to six officers.
It grew slightly when the council approved six new officer positions for fiscal 2014, resulting in the current total of 12 officer positions in the county police department.
Another eight officers participate who are not in budgeted positions, including five assisting police officers, a Gaithersburg city police officer, a Rockville city police officer and a deputy sheriff.
“We have 25 high schools right now and only 20 SROs, so really, to reach that effectiveness, you want that one-on-one,” Harrell said. “We’re not quite there yet.”
Some council members did express support for the program’s current work and for increasing the officers’ presence in middle schools.
County Council Vice President Craig L. Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said he thinks the officers help stave off violent incidents and are doing work that is difficult to quantify. Their work also often won’t be heard about, he said.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Rice said.
Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda said he was concerned that schools underreport incidents, but that he appreciated Ervin’s frustration.
Berliner asked county school board member Michael Durso to take back to the board the idea of splitting the cost evenly with the county.
Durso, a former principal, said he has seen firsthand the positive impact of the officers who were able to develop relationships with students.
“I really can’t say enough of the importance of the growth of the SRO program,” Durso said.
Susan Burkinshaw — health and safety committee co-chairwoman of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations — said she sees the council “between a rock and a hard place” when it comes to deciding how to use limited funds for the officer program and youth programs.
However, she said, she thinks school safety has to come first and that students are safer when the officers are present.
“I believe that when there’s an officer in the building, incidents are diffused,” she said.
The parent teacher associations council ultimately wants to see an officer in each high school and middle school, Burkinshaw said, but recognizes the county’s financial restraints.
Doug Steel, supervisor of school safety and security for the school system, said after the meeting that he agreed that the county’s youth programs are important places to commit resources.
“The safety and security of kids is also critically important,” he said. “For the parents, this is the most precious commodity.”
While placing an officer at every school is “an enormous budgetary issue,” Steel said, he thinks the officers would be beneficial for middle and elementary school students as well.
Any growing number of officers would be helpful, he said.
The key to the program’s success in a school is the officer’s ability to build relationships with the students, Steel said.
“The kids are the ones that have information, or have issues that need to be dealt with and it’s on a daily basis,” he said.