2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Keeping police officers in schools conflicts with claims to support racial justice

Benevolent portrayals of SROs can't erase their institutional roots

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This summer, administrators and elected officials across Montgomery County and around the country made bold comments and commitments on social media, in public forums and in official statements, to challenge the plague of racist police terror in our communities.

Yet in Montgomery County, all 25 MCPS high school principals and the Association of Administrators and Principals objected to Bill 46-20 and calls to remove police officers stationed in county schools.

It’s painful when our officials who reject the values of racial justice movements correspondingly reject calls to remove institutions of racist violence from their communities.

But what is more complex is mulling the disconnection presented by nominally “progressive” officials who legitimize policing in county schools while in the next breath paying homage to people killed at the hands of police. It is this ethos of liberal benevolence that has become responsible for preserving institutions of racist state violence in our so-called “progressive” county.

The co-optation of social justice rhetoric to advocate for carceral (relating to practices of incarceration) growth and preservation is not unique to Montgomery County.

In Bloomington, Ind., for example, politicians condemned the legacies of mass incarceration and the U.S. “prison-industrial complex” while simultaneously justifying their support for building new youth jails, rebranding their child detention project as a “justice campus.”

In Montgomery County and across the country, the police positions in schools are called School Resource Officers (SROs), which functions to make innocent the expanding criminalization of children and the carceral growth in educational institutions.

When policing institutions are faced with a legitimization crisis, as they were again this summer, they scramble to present themselves as benevolent social service providers to ensure their palatability as a permanent presence in communities. We are watching this process happen in real time in Montgomery County.

MCPS administrators have continuously expressed a vision of local policing that attempts to distinguish MCPS from the national narrative of racist policing.

In testimony and interviews, school administrators identified positive impacts of SROs, noting their efforts to build relationships with students, help students with familial problems and intervene in substance use. As such, administrators are playing a key role in rebranding policing under the guise of social service provision.

Two MCPS principals, in an interview with Bethesda Beat, suggested that, if students feel uncomfortable with SROs, they should work to build personal relationships with them.

After a summer of protest against police violence — our social media timelines flooded with videos and testimonies of brutality — it feels like gaslighting to ask students to soothe their fears of racist and violent policing by becoming friends with officers.

But in doing so, administrators have promoted the false idea of exceptionalism, that MCPS is unlike the rest of the country. There is an unfounded belief that MCPS officials have the capacity to create benevolent anti-racist policing institutions through training and community support.

They want us to believe that the police in our schools are not those we see in viral videos on the internet.

But a simple investigation into MCPS police illustrates that SROs are producing the same violent practices and racist arrest outcomes as police in the rest of the country.

Students, particularly those of color, should not have to parade their testimonies and experiences of police violence and racial trauma for administrators to understand the program of racist police terror they permit to embed in our schools.

The school-to-prison pipeline is not a metaphor. The county chooses to spend millions on SROs — pushing students, particularly students of color, out of the classroom and into the criminal legal system.

SROs were first introduced into U.S. schools in Flint, Mich., in the 1950s. By 1975, only 1% of U.S. schools had permanent police placements.

Today, there are tens of thousands of SROs across the country. The expansion of policing in our schools parallels the expansion of mass incarceration.

The expansion of school resource officers is explicitly part of that story. The rates of disproportionate arrests and targeting of students of color mirror the criminal legal system, precisely because they are the same system.

If MCPS administrators and officials understand the effects of racist police terror, as they claimed to this summer, then we must hold them accountable for choosing to bring youth in the county into closer proximity with police.

MCPS administrators symbolically reject police violence and criminalization while fighting to materially replicate and preserve it. Our “liberal” and “progressive” officials are making it less safe for the undocumented, Black, brown, unhoused and trans students who often experience policing as a force of terror.

Removing police from our communities is a collective racial justice litmus test. The county administrators are failing.

Caren Holmes, a 2013 graduate of Montgomery Blair High School, is an abolitionist organizer, trainer and facilitator, and a scholar of postcolonial studies.