In my last post, I discussed the necessity for keeping Howard County Public School students safe during crises and exceptional situations—through security enhancements, emergency procedure drills, stricter check-in guidelines, and improved mental-health resources.
National conversations about gun violence continue in schools. And given recent events in Texas, Maryland, Indiana, and Florida, the issue of school safety is back in the spotlight. It seems that no matter how many times this issue arises, sufficient precautions are never made to prevent it from recurring. So, it is vital that we become vigilant about preventing such problems.
To that end, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman dedicated an additional $1.1 million dollars to providing funding for essential security measures in local schools in March 2018. For instance, this funding will provide more door locks in Howard County high schools, and it will double the number of school resource officers (SROs) in middle schools.
As these events unfold, we need to reflect as a community, and consider the guidelines and procedures that will be most effective for keeping our students safe—not only during the next school year, but in the long term.
In Howard County, the majority of security attention is given to preventing dangers from permeating our schools’ walls. But what about the threats that emanate from within? Threats can invisibly lurk in our schools, which can have devastating, long-term effects on our students and communities.
For instance, the invisible plague of cyberbullying continues to permeate beneath the surface of our young people’s interactions. And it occurs in a space that is difficult—if not impossible—to monitor. In fact, the Maryland Senate revised a cyberbullying law in March.
Violent acts and altercations occasionally take place between students in our hallways, buses, and playgrounds. Students are often hesitant to share these incidents, but they can have long-term psychological and emotional impacts.
In addition, threats sometimes come from the adults in our schools that students trust most. Recently, we’ve seen such threats hit home. A well-publicized case revealed that a substitute teacher who’d taught in 43 Howard County Schools was charged with the sexual abuse of a minor.
These threats aren’t always clear-cut or easy to perceive, so effective solutions are complex, and have to take many factors into consideration. In order to enhance school safety, we must provide ways for teachers, social workers, and SROs to build organic and meaningful relationships with students, recognize warning signs, and prevent issues from escalating.
Most of us know the risk factors involved in juvenile violence, but the protective factors can shield youth from violence and create safer schools for everyone. Protective factors can be implemented by working with individual students and improving their relationships with their families and peers.
These protective factors include establishing clear rules, enacting immediate consequences for acts of aggression, and strengthening parent/teacher engagement. If we achieve this kind of climate in all of our schools, we will be able to prevent some of the internal (and seemingly invisible) sources of school violence.
In order to ensure that such a protective climate exists, our educators need ample support. For teachers to be able to closely monitor student behavior, small class sizes are essential, as they will allow teachers to be more immediately aware of conflicts or student distress, and enable them to intervene before problems can escalate.
To keep class sizes small and school climates safe, we must pursue funding from appropriate sources. Part of my mission as a candidate is to draw on my experience in financial procurement, which will cultivate existing partnerships and create new ones that will help us meet these goals.
Some of this funding can also be used to fund interviews between school counselors and families of incoming freshmen, so that patterns of possible dysfunction can be spotted early on. Then preventative interventions can be put in place.
Unfortunately, the opposite is occurring in Baltimore, as a lack of funding is reducing the number of school counselors. But we can prevent this situation from occurring in Howard County.
Rethinking the Role of School Resource Officers
Proponents of measures to increase the presence of armed law enforcement in our schools often advocate for the hiring of SROs.
SROs are specifically trained for working with children and dealing with situations that arise in schools. However, school officials announced that armed police officers would be assigned to our schools. So, they’ll be roaming the corridors without any special training in this environment, according to The Baltimore Sun.
The presence of SROs in our schools is important for enhancing school safety. However, US News reported that the plan to bring police officers into our schools without proper training can create more problems than it solves.
Because these officers aren’t extensively trained to work with children, their presence can lead to such negative consequences as excessive suspensions and other disciplinary measures that result in racial discrimination. And according to The Washington Post, these outcomes only threaten to worsen the already troubling school-to-prison pipeline.
It is essential that our students feel safe at school, not threatened whenever they see an armed officer walking the corridors.
WTOP reported that a more productive approach would be to continue integrating SROs into the school’s learning community, where they can be trained in criminal justice and related fields. With a more clearly defined role, these armed officers can develop positive relationships with students, and provide more meaningful interventions in our schools.
While a long-term solution for making Howard County Public Schools safer will be complex and multifaceted, it will also address both seemingly invisible and more obvious threats.
Together, we can work towards the goal of every student feeling safe at school.