As a national conversation on the role of police officers in schools continues, two Montgomery County council members are aiming to abolish the school resource officer program.
Council Members Will Jawando and Hans Riemer announced their plans to propose a bill to ban the SRO program on Saturday afternoon at a MoCo Defund the Police Campaign rally in Silver Spring. The rally was organized by several activist groups, including Progressive Maryland, ACLU of Maryland and Young People for Progress.
Jawando and Riemer said they plan to recommend that SRO program funding be used for the hiring of more mental health professionals, counselors and nurses.
“It’s not just enough to remove the potential harm of the police, you’ve got to invest that money into things the kids need. … It’s our job to say what our police can and cannot do,” Jawando said in an interview on Saturday. “We pass the laws and the executive has to implement them. It’s totally within our rights since this SRO program is totally funded through the police budget, that we would say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that.’”
The bill would essentially make it illegal for Montgomery County police officers to be SROs. Montgomery County Public Schools superintendent Jack Smith is expected to make a recommendation by January on whether to continue the program.
Five council members — Sidney Katz, Gabe Albornoz, Andrew Friedson, Nancy Navarro, and Craig Rice — who oppose removal of SROs have supported waiting for the county’s Board of Education to make a final decision on the fate of the program.
But Jawando and Riemer said the decision shouldn’t be left to the school board.
“I think it’s our decision. It’s our police department,” Riemer said. “I think we’re the ones accountable for this. I think there is a much better way to meet the needs that we are trying to meet. I think there are professionals who can do a much better job reaching kids who need to be reached. I hope the school system is willing to think bigger and approach this in a more visionary way.”
Riemer said the school board will probably finish its own deliberation in a period that matches the timeline of the council considering the legislation.
“I don’t think there’s ultimately going to be a conflict between [letting] the school system finish its deliberation,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s possible that the school system will recommend either nothing — they’ll say ‘neutral’ or they’ll say, ‘keep them.’ Under either [of] those scenarios, what do we do? I know what I want to do. I think we can provide a more effective resource to the schools than police officers.”
Supporters of the program have said that SROs provide added value to some students as mentors and that students are safer from school shootings and violence with SROs present.
“There’s scant, if any at all, evidence that the presence of an armed guard or police officer will disincentivize a mass shooting. … There’s a lot of places where there were armed security or police present and the shooting still happened,” Jawando said. “It’s actually more important to have physical security like doors that lock in classrooms and vestibules so people can’t run right in.”
Everyone wants to keep students safe, Jawando said, and police would still be called if needed.
“The police shouldn’t have to juggle the responsibility of being a law enforcement officer and a non-trained mental therapist or social-emotional crisis counselor,” Jawando said. “That’s not their job.”
Jawando has previously noted that over the last four years, more than 50% of students arrested by SROs were Black, despite the fact that Black’s make up only about 20% of the student population..
Jawando and Riemer plan to introduce the legislation in the next six weeks.
Riemer said he is also working on legislation to decrease officer-involved traffic enforcement and place focus more on automated methods, such as speed cameras. He said the Office of Legislative Oversight is conducting a study into traffic enforcement and the bill isn’t expected to be introduced until next year.
As far as the SRO program, Jawando and Riemer’s bill won’t be the first that the council has considered for changes to the program.
In late July, Jawando proposed an amendment to the county’s savings plan — formed to help the county save money because of the fiscal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic — that would have taken 12 of the 23 active school resource officer positions and reassigned them to other areas and duties of the police department.
SROs are placed in 23 of the 26 public high schools in the county.
But the council voted 5-4 against the amendment.
Katz, Albornoz, Friedson, Navarro and Rice were opposed. Council Vice President Tom Hucker and Council Members Evan Glass and Riemer sided with Jawando.
Jawando also proposed eliminating all of the school resource officer positions at the council’s Public Safety Committee meeting on July 14, but the majority of the committee opposed it.
At the rally, protesters listed six demands regarding policing in the county:
● Remove traffic enforcement from police responsibilities
● Take police out of schools
● Engage in harm reduction, including diversion, decriminalization and responding to nonviolent and non-emergency issues with non-police personnel
● Repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights
● Decrease the Montgomery County police budget
● Invest in measures that strengthen communities and prevent crime, such as homelessness services and affordable housing; workforce development and youth programs; and free, accessible and safe public spaces
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.