2020 | Government

County Council split on fate of school resource officer positions

Jawando proposed freezing positions, reassigning officers, but was outvoted

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The Montgomery County Council was split in its support for freezing 12 school resource officer positions.

File photo

A tense discussion arose Tuesday as the Montgomery County Council considered whether to keep funding police officers assigned to schools.

Council Member Will Jawando proposed taking 12 of the 23 active school resource officer positions and reassigning them to other areas and duties of the police department. Jawando said those positions will be “lapsed” — the positions would remain for now, but the people filling them would be reassigned.

SROs are placed in 23 of the 26 public high schools in the county.

The council would make a more definite decision on the SRO positions after getting more information on police operations.

The council was split on Jawando’s amendment, voting 5-4 against it.

Council President Sidney Katz and Council Members Gabe Albornoz, Andrew Friedson, Nancy Navarro and Craig Rice were opposed. Council Vice President Tom Hucker and Council Members Evan Glass and Hans Riemer sided with Jawando.

The discussion came up in the context of the county budget and the need to make cuts to make up for declining revenues.

County Executive Marc Elrich proposed cutting $66 million from the county’s budget.

But in a straw vote on Tuesday, the council instead unanimously supported a cut of $72.1 million. The cut was greater than Elrich’s proposal because his recommendation did not include cuts to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The planning board had not yet approved them.

As part of a savings plan, the council unanimously supported freezing 27 vacant sworn police officer positions and 4.5 civilian positions in the police department. Elrich had recommended eliminating the vacant positions, for a savings of $8.5 million.

Those positions included five vacant SRO positions at MCPS middle schools.

During the council’s Public Safety Committee meeting on July 14, Jawando proposed eliminating all of the school resource officer positions, but was met with opposition from two of the three committee members — Katz and Albornoz.

Hucker, the third member, did not voice opposition during the meeting, but later said he would end the school resource officer program immediately in the county if state law allowed it.

On Tuesday, Jawando said that over the last four years, more than half of the MCPS students arrested by SROs were Black. Black students account for a fifth of the student population, he said.

“The question is what is the right tool, the right resource for our students in a school environment,” he said.

Jawando said several students told him that they thought money would be better spent on mental health professionals and counselors and better training for the security staff.

“I think this is an opportunity to lapse these positions and capture the savings and abolish them in the FY22 budget,” Jawando said.

Rice said he felt the discussion was “disrespectful” because it was not acknowledging the school system’s efforts to analyze the SRO program.

MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith is expected to report back to the school board in October with arrest data it requested. Then, Smith is to make a recommendation by January on whether to continue the program.

“They are elected to represent the school system,” Rice said of the school board.” They are the ones who have said they want to embark on this. Nobody forced them to do this. That’s what they opted to do. For us to then jump in and say, ‘Well, we’re going to do it differently and not listen to you,’ I believe is incredibly disrespectful.”

When the superintendent’s report is released in January, the council can discuss the program further, Rice said.

Some council members agreed that they wanted to see what the superintendent’s report found, as well as input from the new Policing Advisory Commission. The commission members are expected to be chosen before the end of the month.

Albornoz said the decision about the SRO program needs to be based on information. If the council eliminates the program, there should be a transition plan, he said.

Although police patrols could respond to school situations, school resource officers have come to know staff members and students, which are helpful, he said.

“I agree that there’s urgency to meet this moment that we’re in, Albornoz said. “I understand how that’s being used as an argument for moving forward with the reductions now, but I actually think that reinforces the argument that that gives us even more time to be able to fully process and evaluate this program and look at it from all sides. … The data we have is limited.”

Navarro also stressed that the council has time to make a decision about the program.

It’s time for change in the program, but there needs to be more work thinking of modifications and a program model that makes sense for students, she said.

“The sense of urgency, I’m not understanding. Because again, school is not in session,” she said. “The board is already doing the work. We’re about to set the Policing Advisory Commission. We have time. … We do have time to signal that we want something new and allow the board of education to do that work.”

Riemer said there’s a misconception that the SRO program is a Board of Education policy.

“This is the County Council’s policy. We are the ones who have expanded it, funded it year after year, steadily, adding positions,” he said.

The council should give direction to the Board of Education on what to do with the program, he said.

School and county officials want the same thing — an adult who is a mentor, can guide a student with a crisis, can connect students to public safety resources, and can be an “angel on the shoulders,” Riemer said.

“I think that we often are trying to put a square peg into a round hole by asking the police officer to be all those things,” he said. “I think an officer can be all those things. … But I also think that other types of training and personnel would be more effective.”

Riemer said he thinks the Board of Education decision on the SRO program will be inconclusive and school officials will look to the county for what to do.

Glass agreed that changes should be made to program while students aren’t in school.

“Now is the time to share with the Board of Education and with MCPS leadership that changes need to be made while we’re not in school,” he said, “While we’re figuring out what the future of public education might be or at least in-person public education — instead of waiting for kids to go back into school and as we face other budget cuts as well.”

The council has identified mental health as a priority, Glass said, and more counselors and mental health services are needed for students.

“I think they need a little less policing,” he said.

Even if the council took away funding for the program, school officials could use other funds for SROs, Jawando said.

“It doesn’t take any authority away from them, but it does signal that as a body, we make budgetary decisions and those are choices,” he said. “By lapsing this program, that is going to free up money that we can use to invest in critical things that our students and community and their families need.”

Navarro said she “takes issue with the notion” that council members are not listening to students if they didn’t vote for the amendment.

“To literally dismiss the work of the Board of Education by creating some artificial urgency when we just saw the school system saying that for the first semester, they’re going to be virtual — it just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “Everybody has pretty much said the same thing — that we would like to have a different model.”

Rice said the council needs to find changes that support safety for the schools and respect concerns that residents have about officers with guns in schools. The council can work on a compromise, he said.

“You don’t have to abolish something to change it,” he said. “You can actually just change it. So let’s change it.”

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.