From a noose at Crofton Middle School to JCC bomb threats, and from an attack on two Jewish Towson University students to Ku Klux Klan flyers in Baltimore City and Howard and Carroll counties, the state has seen increased incidents of racism, anti-Semitism and hate crimes over the past two years.
The governor, legislators and advocates are already taking action with proposed security funding and trying to expand hate crime legislation in this year’s General Assembly session.
Gov. Larry Hogan announced on Jan. 15 a proposed budget allocation of $5 million to bolster security measures for Maryland schools and places of worship that are potential targets for hate crimes.
The $5 million would be split into two pools and administered through grant programs. The Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention would disperse $3 million among selected places of worship, while the Maryland Center for School Safety would award $2 million in grants to schools.
Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, the legislative arm of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, welcomed the proposed increase and said, “Five million is substantially larger than what we’ve gotten in the past.” He noted the $2 million for school security would double the state’s appropriation from last year, which allowed for grants to 28 applicants.
No place of worship would be deemed ineligible for a grant because of religious affiliation. Libit thinks the entities administering the grants would set up criteria to determine which institutions are at risk of experiencing hate crimes.
“We’d recommend that they look at some of the same standards that the federal government has used in the federal Homeland Security grants,” he said.
Last year, Maryland received $1.75 million in federal funds to increase security at schools and places of worship. Since the establishment of the Homeland Security Grant Program in 2003, Baltimore-area Jewish institutions have received close to $10 million in security funding, Libit said.
He anticipates that in addition to funding infrastructural security, including cameras and improved lighting, the state money could also be used for the hiring or training of security personnel.
The Baltimore Jewish Council was involved in another initiative in Annapolis on Jan. 15, when Deputy Director Sarah Mersky testified in favor of a House bill sponsored by Del. Mark Chang (D-District 32) to expand existing hate crime legislation. The bill would make placing a noose or swastika on a property without the owner’s consent a misdemeanor punishable by up to three years in jail or a fine not to exceed $5,000.
A version of this bill was proposed late in the 2018 session and passed both the House and Senate, but a definitive version could not be agreed upon before the end of the session.
In his opening remarks, Chang provided more context for the bill, which came as a response to two men hanging a noose at Crofton Middle School in 2017.
The men were acquitted of hate crime charges in 2018 by an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge, who ruled that the defense failed to provide enough evidence that the perpetrators acted out of animus towards the African American community. The new bill would not allow for such ambiguities. It would define the term “deface” “for purposes of hate crime laws to include affixing, erecting or place a noose or swastika on,” the bill says.
Mersky testified that Maryland saw a 35 percent increase in hate crimes last year, and that “placing historically racist and anti-Semitic symbols which create immediate fear in individuals and putting them on someone’s property should be a hate crime in our state.”
Libit hopes that Chang’s bill won’t be the only hate crime legislation from the last General Assembly session to be revisited. A bill co-sponsored by Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) and Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11) that would criminalize threatening to commit a hate crime passed in the Senate last year, but was withdrawn in the House after receiving an unfavorable rating.
In the coming weeks, Libit also expects Sen. Ben Kramer (D-District 19) to file a bill mandating that Maryland middle and high schools include the Holocaust and other historical examples of genocide in their curricula.