Monday, February 22, 2010

Protecting Our Children from Gangs

By Speaker of the House Michael E. Busch.

Last year, Maryland residents were shaken by several horrific incidents of gang violence in schools across our State. As the father of two young daughters, ages 11 and 14, I was stunned to learn that gangs exist in every county in Maryland. During a briefing to the House Judiciary Committee, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy told the Committee that he knew for a fact that 25 members of the national gang MS-13 existed in one freshman class at a Montgomery County High School, but could not do anything to address it.

We have set up our schools as safe havens and yet, the State Department of Juvenile Services reports that children as young as 10 years old are being recruited to participate in gangs in Maryland.

Early in my tenure in the legislature, we established schools as Drug-Free Zones, doubling the criminal penalties for drug possession and distribution in and around schools. Last year, every school system in the State established a notification system for parents, teachers and students if anyone in the school community contracted the H1-N1 virus. And yet, there are prohibitions in the law that prevent schools and law enforcement from communicating about gang recruitment and other gang-related activities, short of a crime, that involve students.

Last week, I introduced the Safe Schools Act of 2010 to try and address some of these shortcomings. Working with stakeholders from across the State including the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association, the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland, the Governor’s Office and the Anne Arundel County Executive, Police and Sheriff, and others, we crafted the Safe Schools Act of 2010 to:

o Expand the number of reportable offenses. When a student is arrested for certain offenses, such as a crime of violence, this information must be reported to their school. Currently the law does not require reporting for some crimes that can be indicative of gang membership. The bill requires that arrests for malicious destruction of property and simple assault also be reported to school personnel;

o Require the State Board of Education to develop a model statewide policy for gang intervention, prevention, and suppression efforts in our schools, including teacher training and professional development programs;

o Require each middle and high school to have a designated school security officer on site and regular school security meetings that involve all stakeholders, including school administrators, prosecutors, community leaders, intervention/prevention representatives, and law enforcement;

o Require the development of criteria for intervention and prevention programs that are evidenced-based and outcome-oriented, as well as the coordination of community resources to maintain safe school environments.

Several advocacy groups have expressed concerns over labeling and criminalizing students, early in their lives. This legislation does not assess any criminal penalties against students but rather establishes mechanisms to prevent student involvement in gangs and encourage interventions into more positive activities. It is our responsibility, as parents, coaches, mentors, guardians and family members, to ensure that our children have the safest possible environment in which to learn each and every day. We cannot allow gangs to infiltrate these safe havens and attract our children to lives of criminal behavior.