2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Montgomery County excels at work groups and studies, but lags behind in action

One group is doing its 'reimagining' without much transparency

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Starting this fall, students in Montgomery County will no longer need to worry about the possibility of being body-slammed, Tased, or funneled through the school-to-prison pipeline by a school resource officer in their classroom.

Thanks to relentless advocacy from students, teachers, and parents, County Executive Marc Elrich and the school system have finally confirmed that police will not be stationed in schools this year.

What remains alarmingly unclear, however, is what happens next.

With days until the start of the academic year, the plan to bolster safety in our schools is uncertain — largely left to a muddle of three different work groups at three different levels of government, all with no clear timeline or guarantee of a new, just safety paradigm.

First, there was the school system’s work group, which studied the issue for seven months and was publicly criticized by student members for marginalizing their voices, then was sent back to study it for five more months.

Then there was the task force put forward by County Council members, followed a few days later by the county executive office’s announcement of its own task force.

Out of this tangle of bureaucracy, the county executive office’s work group, dubbed the “Reimagining School Safety and Student Wellbeing (RSSSW)” Task Force, is particularly poorly positioned to come to an equitable policy solution in time. It is frustratingly emblematic of our county’s tendency to expend more effort pondering urgent issues than acting on them.

For one thing, the RSSSW Task Force is starkly unrepresentative of those actually impacted by the issue at hand. Of the 32 members on the task force, only three are students.

Seeing as students will almost entirely bear the brunt of any change to school safety policy, it is a bizarre decision to largely exclude them from this body.

The choice to leave students out is made even stranger by the fact that these discussions were initially sparked by students loudly and persuasively speaking out on how this issue should be handled.

Ultimately, however, it’s hard to even gauge where the RSSSW Task Force is leaning due to the group’s near-complete lack of transparency. The task force releases no agendas, no minutes, and no live or recorded videos of its meetings — requirements rightfully imposed on virtually every other part of our local government through the state Open Meetings Act.

Regardless of where you may fall on the school safety debate, one should recognize the inherent dangers of an unelected, opaque decision-making body making decisions on issues that don’t directly impact nearly any of its members.

To be clear, our concern with governing via task forces isn’t that study of tough issues is bad. For instance, the Student Wellbeing Action Group (SWAG), launched by Council Members Will Jawando and Craig Rice, is doing exceptional work. That task force has healthy student leadership and has already released a thoughtful preliminary report on the need for school social workers and other social-emotional student supports.

Nor is our concern with the members of the RSSSW Task Force itself, all of whom are good-hearted members of our county interested in serving our community and safeguarding our students.

What we take fundamental issue with is this county’s constant impulse to mull instead of act.

The structural failings of the RSSSW Task Force are reflective of a broader culture in county government to study to the point of stalling — forming endless task forces, committees, work groups, and book clubs to slowly piece together what we already know and those affected by the issue at hand have already told us.

And then there’s the pressing issue of what happens when these task forces are finally done studying.

The school year starts in days. When will any changes actually be made? Without a guarantee of policy change at the end of the process, it is an open question whether these task forces are more about placating advocates and buying time over creating the informational groundwork for subsequent change.

The county executive’s office would do well to quickly and dramatically overhaul the RSSSW Task Force to make it more transparent and more representative of the students directly impacted by the issue. It would also do well to give more attention to the superior work of the SWAG Task Force.

But ultimately, what this moment demands of our county is the swift abandonment of this reflex to aimlessly study issues instead of doing something about them.

If our county’s leaders can use task forces quickly, sparingly, and purposefully, these groups can meaningfully contribute to governance instead of stalling it. But that will require a vastly greater sense of urgency, firmer assurances of eventual change, and putting the directly affected in control.

If our county is to meet the fundamental challenges of our time, it can no longer enmesh itself in endless contemplation — it must use what it learns to actually act.

Rising Voices is an occasional column by Nate Tinbite, a John F. Kennedy High School graduate; Ananya Tadikonda, a Richard Montgomery High School graduate; and Matt Post, a Sherwood High School graduate. All three are recent student members of the Montgomery County Board of Education.

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