ANNAPOLIS Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, several Montgomery County delegation members, other county officials and police agencies sent a clear message Thursday threats and acts of violence will not be tolerated in Maryland schools.
Prompted by recent high-profile violent incidents at American schools, officials gathered Thursday to urge General Assembly approval of legislation to increase protection for students and school employees. The School Safety Act of 1999 would give educators and law enforcement officers the flexibility to deal with threats, weapon possession and other problems in schools before they erupt, according to supporters.
The act has won praise from police officials because it extends protection to students, teachers and school staff on school buses, school field trips or other school property not just in the halls and classrooms.
“It’s unfortunate we have to resort to this type of action,” said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery, lead sponsor of the bill. “Our current law does not provide educators and law enforcement officials with enough flexibility to deal with today’s problems in the classroom. This legislation will.”
The bill will allow a police officer to make arrests without a warrant for more kinds of crimes, protect school employees from threats made to them at home and strengthen current penalties for threats made against school employees.
Duncan said the legislation stems from “troubling acts of aggression and disciplinary problems” that have occurred at Montgomery County Public Schools. He later held up a standardized test that was submitted to a Montgomery County teacher. A student wrote on it: “Mrs. Miller will die. I’m not lying. I will kill Mrs. Miller.”
Duncan cited other examples from a series of roundtable discussions with students, educators, parents and law enforcement officials held last year. Complaints included threats made to students on school buses, threats to teachers by students, a problem with students possessing penknives and a case where a homemade explosive device was taken to a high school and exploded at a bus stop.
“This legislation is a start, part of a broader effort,” Duncan said. “This is not the total solution, but it does begin to close the loopholes that exist in state law.”
Sen. Bob Hooper, D-Cecil and strong supporter of the bill, said the School Safety Act is not just a Montgomery County initiative, but something all counties will be able to benefit from.
“Going back to an old adage, when there was a stove and it burned you, you learned to stay away from it,” he said. “We’re going to burn some kids in this process because they are going to pay the penalty for coming in and (breaking laws).”
John McCarthy, deputy state’s attorney for Montgomery County, said one of the biggest complaints from school officials was the lack of authority police have in arresting and removing students who were found on school property with knives and other dangerous weapons.
Expanding police arrest authority, specifically for the possession of penknives on school property, will allow police to deal with the problem more proactively, said State’s Attorney Douglas Gansler.
“There is no legitimate need or reason for a student to have a weapon at his or her school. With this bill, we are taking steps to avoid serious tragedy,” Gansler added.
Other provisions under the School Safety Act of 1999 include: adding possession of penknives to the list of offenses for which police officers may make warrantless arrests while on school property; adding crimes such as possession of controlled substances, destructive devices, bombs and explosives to those offenses for which police officers must notify school officials following an arrest; prohibiting threats made against school employees at their home including those threats made in person, by telephone, or by electronic mail; and increasing the fine from $1,000 to $2,500 for threats or bodily harm.
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