By CHRISTOPHER M. MATTHEWS
ANNAPOLIS (Sept. 20, 2009)—Concerns about gang activity at Maryland schools is prompting law enforcement officials, prosecutors and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, to look into ways to make it easier for police and school officials to share information.
"[Gangs] are one of the biggest threats to the quality of life in Anne Arundel, and other counties across the state," said Lt. J.D. Batten, commander of the school safety division for the Anne Arundel County Police.
But, while there is consensus that greater cooperation is needed, the purpose and nature of that cooperation remains controversial. There are concerns about the privacy and confidentiality of student records, as well as questions about to what extent students would be labeled as gang members.
"We all agree that there needs to be cooperation among all the entities involved in this process," said Cindy Boersma, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "But, this needs to be a deliberative, thoughtful cooperation."
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy explained that though school officials in his county had identified more than 20 known gang member entering one freshman class, they were unable to share this information with law enforcement, a disclosure that alarmed Busch.
"Do they have any ability to interfere and step in, and inform either the police department or services, so that doesn't take place in a school setting," Busch pointedly asked at the hearing.
Alexandra Hughes, Busch's communications director, said the speaker would take the issue up at a meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee this fall. But Hughes said the session would be an informational briefing, and that specific legislation was not on the table.
Batten gave some idea of what the committee could look at.
"Because of the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), any school who receives federal money has to protect student educational records," said Batten. "They are privileged and confidential, and that's an obstacle for law enforcement."
Batten also highlighted that Maryland state law prevents juvenile police records from being released, except by court order.
"There are significant and serious things that inhibit this communication," said Batten.
Batten referred to the federal government's 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment as evidence of gang proliferation. The report found that gang activity had increased nationally and was spreading to rural and suburban areas.
In Maryland, a 2009 report by the state's Department of Legislative Services, said local police departments had identified more than 200 gangs across the state. However, the report warned against putting too much emphasis on the data because each jurisdiction used "slightly different method[s]" for identifying gang members.
Boersma said that it was too early to comment on potential reforms. But, she disagreed with Batten's assessment of current legislation.
"There are very small barriers for law enforcement officials for sharing with schools, so we would want to know how much can be accomplished under existing laws," Boersma said.
Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, agreed that there should be greater communication between agencies, so long as the goal is to prevent youths from joining gangs in the first place, and not to simply label students as gang members.
"Labeling really doesn't do anything. The question is, what is the solution going to be," said Joseph. "So what, knowing [a student is in a gang], then what do you do? If you just prosecute, there are not enough facilities in the state to deal with that."
Lt. Batten emphasized that communication reform was needed not just for law enforcement, but for preventative measures as well. He said the most important function of information sharing is bringing parents into the picture.
Boersma said it will be interesting to see how this plays out and that she remains hopeful that consensus can be reached.
"There are always ways to improve communication and flow of information while continuing to protect important privacy and confidentiality issues," Boersma said. "These don't have to be competing values."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.