Last week’s shooting at Magruder High School, in which a 15-year-old student was critically wounded, has renewed calls from officials and advocates to bring back the school resource officer (SRO) program in Montgomery County Public Schools.
County Executive Marc Elrich announced in March 2021 that SROs would be removed from schools for this academic year. The elimination of SROs came amid calls in the county and at the national level for changes in policing, following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and other incidents of police violence. Additionally, those who opposed SROs point to data showing that students of color are arrested at higher rates than white students.
SROs were replaced this school year by community engagement officers, who are assigned to certain areas around schools and respond to incidents as needed.
Police Chief Marcus Jones spoke with Bethesda Beat this week for a wide-ranging interview that focused on the aftermath of the Magruder shooting, his thoughts on police in schools and the overall increase in gun violence in the county.
You said this week that there hasn’t been any discussion about bringing back the school resource officer (SRO) program at this time. But given what we’ve seen with the shooting at Magruder and other incidents at schools, would it be worth revisiting bringing back the program in the future?
Dr. [Monifa] McKnight and I have had a discussion about this. She and I have had a discussion about what we looked at, not so much going back to the “old program,” but to see where we are with the current community engagement program. To assess it, and to make any recommendations as to changes moving forward as to how it can be improved.
You’re right that there are these incidents that are alarming to the community and the public. And many people want us to go back to the old SRO program. Understand that for me, the school system really is the client. They are the client, and we are the provider of the service.
We’ve [outlined] already in this current memorandum of understanding, what we would respond to schools to handle versus what we expect the schools to handle. Now, do I believe that having a higher visibility of officers in our schools makes for a better …. We don’t necessarily have to be patrolling the halls but for us to be present at the school and work with our schools on security issues? Absolutely, we should revisit that and think about that. Do I think that our community engagement officers have the ability to be around the students at critical moments such as lunch hours or dismissal, and be there as the officers engaging them from a community policing standpoint? Absolutely I do. Because if you’re speaking about community policing as we have done here in Montgomery County, I believe that these schools are as much a part of the community as any residential neighborhood.
And so police officers, in order to have good information to prevent crime and to be proactive, to make sure that certain crimes don’t happen in our schools…. I think in the past with the SRO program, if you look at the positives from the SRO program, there’s no doubt in my mind those are the positives. We have multiple examples of positive outcomes in preventing these [incidents] that could have gone really bad, such as school shootings in our school system over the past few years, where SROs were available to provide the information to help us to make sure that that did not happen.
Can you explain when a 911 dispatch comes in, how it’s relayed to the community engagement officer?
The community engagement officer is assigned to a particular high school cluster. So for example, Magruder High School is the high school in the Magruder Cluster. There are middle schools assigned as feeder schools. And then you have elementary schools that feed into the middle schools. So any of those schools fall under the cluster, and therefore that community engagement officer is responsible for any call for service from a police standpoint from those schools.
So if there is a call for service at Magruder High School, that particular school is actually assigned to the sheriff’s office, because they’ve provided a sheriff’s deputy to be assigned to the Magruder cluster. So the actual deputy who was at this incidents knows Magruder, because he was a previous SRO at that school.
So any time there’s a call for service, that officer or deputy is listening to the police radio and is provided that call because they’re assigned to that school cluster, and then they would respond to the call. Depending upon the nature of the call either it would be an emergency response or it would be a normal response.
In this case the community engagement officer was a sheriff’s deputy. Can they be any type of law enforcement officer?
No. All of the [community engagement officers] have SRO training. The majority of them are former SROs. But they all have to be trained under the training that has been set forth by the Maryland Safe to Learn Act to provide adequate law enforcement coverage to our schools. But they have to have the training that the state mandates for school resource officers.
Not just any officer is assigned as a [community engagement officer] to our schools. We put them through what we call the position vacancy process. They have to apply to be in this position, so therefore they’re vetted, interviewed and selected. But then they have to go through the training at the end. So they’re specially trained to be in the school setting.
The 17-year-old arrested in the Magruder case allegedly bought a ghost gun online. Do you support the recent effort at the state level to ban ghost guns?
Absolutely. Not only should it be banned at the state level, it should be banned nationally. I think to have an unregulated firearm of these types, it has already proven to be detrimental to our communities. And it’s only going to get worse if we don’t try to do something about it soon.
You said last month that in 36 years with the department this is one of the worst gun violence outbreaks you’ve seen in the county. What’s driving that?
First and foremost, I think it’s the availability of guns in our society. There are more guns on our streets than there are people in the population of the United States, so if you can kind of put that in an environment such as our area, being in a metropolitan based area, firearms are easily obtained other than just being firearms at a local gun store.
One of the most common themes we hear from individuals that we catch with handguns is the fact that they have it for their own protection and they carry it, knowing that there’s a risk of them being arrested for carrying a gun, because everyone else in their circles, you might say, has a gun. So in order to protect themselves, that’s why they carry a gun.
When we talk about the gun violence itself, we are seeing many arguments and disagreements, and sort of revenge acts in some regards, to be settled by the use of a firearm. And we’ve seen it way too often in our communities this year. And we’re not just seeing one or two or three shots being fired. We’re seeing multiple rounds being fired from multiple different guns on some occasions, with different individuals firing different guns to settle some dispute or disagreement. And that’s been troubling, because that’s not been the norm in our community. We’ve had shootings before, but not in the volume we’ve seen them before, and in the ammunition we’re locating.
Why are the shootings getting worse? (Editor’s note: Montgomery County recorded 30 homicides between January and November 2021, two-thirds of which involved a handgun, according to police)
I think where you’ve seen, again, a national narrative…. If you look across the country, you can look right here in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and see the same thing that’s happening in Prince George’s County or Washington, D.C. They’ve been more privy to gun violence in the past than Montgomery County has, but I will tell you that there are no boundaries with these individuals who are coming into Montgomery County and being involved in these incidents in the county. There could be a variety of events that brings individuals here. There could be a gathering, a party or a social event, and then something stems from that social event that brings this type of disagreement and this type of action where people start firing weapons at people.
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org