In a budget meeting in July, just eight weeks after the death of George Floyd, the Montgomery County Council was faced with a test of racial justice in a deeply shaken world.
At stake was the future of the county’s School Resource Officer (SRO) program — a controversial initiative that places armed police officers in public schools. In voting whether to scale back the program, each council member was forced to reconcile their repeated affirmations of “Black Lives Matter” with the actual work of uprooting systemic racism.
In the end, Council Member Will Jawando’s motion to downsize the SRO program failed, 5-4.
But after hearing the despair of Black neighbors, watching nonstop countywide protests, and seeing the horrific data on the disproportionate racial impact of school police, the Montgomery County Council should know better. We should, too — and join together in demanding that the council scrap the SRO program.
To be clear, Montgomery County’s SRO program had well-meaning beginnings. When first proposed, it was meant to be an extension of community policing efforts — a way for law enforcement and young people to build mutual trust and understanding.
But over time, the program’s impact has strayed from its intentions. In recent years, officers in our county’s schools have been accused of body-slamming a female student at a prom, questioned a special-needs elementary schooler for playing with toy money, and used a Taser on a 16-year-old girl.
Police, intended to be in schools to create bonds with students, instead became responsible for disciplining them. Principals lost the authority to decide how classroom problems should be resolved or deescalated. Fights, threats and disruptions went from bad choices to arrestable offenses.
Our fundamental problem with the SRO program isn’t with the character of its officers — it’s with the ill-fitted nature of the program itself.
As young people, we know that part of growing up is making mistakes and learning from the consequences.
But when you mess up in school, the adult who’s supposed to help you grow from the experience is a highly trained educator. When cops are forced to be the first to respond to students’ mistakes, those mistakes become crimes, and young lives are irreversibly tangled up in the justice system.
The dangerous consequences of this approach have not been felt equally. Black students face the brunt of the criminalization of our schools by a startling margin.
In the 2017-2018 school year, despite making up a smaller percentage of the student body, Black students were arrested by our county’s SROs nearly nine times as often as their white peers.
For many students of color, the sight of police is not a calming presence, but an intimidating one — a reminder that you are one mistake away from being marched out of the classroom in handcuffs and funneled through a justice system that already disproportionately punishes people who look like you.
We understand why police in schools might seem comforting to some. We’ve been taught to believe that the way to increase safety is through zero-tolerance toughness — that order is a consequence of force.
Arresting kids in school for fighting or drug use won’t make our hallways or streets safer. Over time, it’ll only erode our community — diverting students from classrooms to courthouses to prisons. Our communities of color, still struggling to recover from decades of mass incarceration, will remain deprived of even a moment to heal.
We want classrooms to be safe. But making our schools safer will require an approach borne of compassion in place of handcuffs.
We must recognize the unfairness of hoisting our societal failures on cops alone to solve and instead invest in counselors, nurses and social workers. Our county must proactively get to the roots of why students bring emotional distress into the classroom and address housing, food insecurity, and a dearth of living wage jobs in our community. If we want our schools to be safe, we should turn them into refuges, not prisons.
In better fiscal times, it might make sense to reimagine the SRO program according to its original intent. But in its current form, the program only poses a financial drain on our county and an ongoing danger to students of color.
The council has already seen the data, heard the wrenching stories and reviewed the facts. It has full jurisdiction over the program. The only question now is one of will.
Our representatives on the council all seem to agree that Black lives matter. When it comes to decisions on racial justice, we ask that they vote like it.
Nate Tinbite is a former student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education and a 2020 graduate of John F. Kennedy High School. Ananya Tadikonda is a former student member of the board and a 2019 graduate of Richard Montgomery High School. Matt Post is a former student member of the board and a 2018 graduate of Sherwood High School.
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