2021 | Schools

As some students push to remove school police, some adults disagree

Hearing was part of MCPS’ review of school resource officer program, set to finish in May

Some Montgomery County students on Tuesday continued their push to remove armed police from local schools, but some parents and other community members said doing so could put children in danger.

During a public hearing, all nine students who spoke — through prerecorded statements — said they believe school resource officers exacerbate inequitable discipline of Black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities. The police, the students said, are “damaging” and create long-lasting negative relationships between students of color and law enforcement.

They pushed back against some community members’ assertions that school-based police are beneficial for some because they serve as role models, help schools with emergency planning and prevent would-be tragedies.

“To simply put it, a cop is a cop. A cop is not a mentor. A cop is not a counselor,” said Lauren Payne, a student at Richard Montgomery High School. “… We need to stop making police something they’re not. They’re not there to be mentors. They’re not there to help students. They’re there to police students and that’s not what students need.”

The public hearing was held as part of an ongoing review of the MCPS school resource officer (SRO) program started this summer in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Following Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, protests erupted across the country and spanned several weeks.

Protestors called for police reform and an end to the criminalization of children in schools.

Funds for school police, students said on Tuesday, should be diverted to hire more counselors, psychologists and social workers, and to invest in other preventative programs like restorative justice.

“You cannot continue to defend your inactions with feel-good anecdotes while your students are going through painful, life-changing experiences,” said David King, a student at Walter Johnson High School.

Representatives of Muslim Voices Coalition, Jews United for Justice, the county’s Women’s Democratic Club, the NAACP Parents Council and some community members also spoke in favor of removing police from schools.

Matthew Vaughn-Smith, an assistant principal at Sherwood Elementary School, pushed back against a position from the administrators union supporting SROs. He said many administrators recently signed a letter opposing police in schools because they did not get to give input about the union stance, and because students have “overwhelmingly spoken and they are tired of the trauma and oppression that armed police patrolling their hallway bring.”

“Armed police officers have no place in our schools,” Vaughn-Smith said.

Because there is a range of opinions about the SRO program throughout the county, Jane Lehrman, representing the Poolesville High School cluster, suggested that the program be updated and improved, rather than discontinued.

She said that the police departments involved should actively recruit and assign officers to schools that are passionate about working with children, invest more money in other support resources (like counselors and psychologists) and update the program “to help face the problems schools may face with children who may have been radicalized on the internet.”

A representative of the Damascus High School cluster also spoke in support of continuing the SRO program.

In the Poolesville and Damascus areas, specifically, representatives said the more rural communities make SROs more necessary. It would take longer for police to arrive and de-escalate a situation or respond to an emergency, they said, so having an officer on site is beneficial.

Gary Frace, a retired MCPS teacher and a cross-country coach at Springbrook High School, said he was “alarmed” that the district is considering discontinuing the SRO program.

He said that although there is not definitive data about how often it happens, SROs often prevent serious incidents from occurring. An example, he said, happened several years ago at Springbrook, when an SRO learned that a student allegedly planned to detonate an explosive device at school, but the officer intervened before anything happened.

“This is only one incident,” Frace said. “Not to overdramatize this, but SROs are truly essential in what could be life-or-death situations.”

Many speakers said that if police remain stationed in schools, the disproportionate arrests of Black and Hispanic students must be addressed.

In MCPS, 460 students were arrested in the past three school years, according to school district data. Of those arrests, 382 (83%) were of Black and Hispanic students. Eleven percent of arrests were of white students during the same time period.

MCPS’ student population is about 27% white, 21% Black and 32% Hispanic, according to MCPS data.

Some who support the SRO program say the arrest numbers might be disproportionate, but they reflect who is committing crimes.

Testimony presented Tuesday was recorded in advance and streamed during the hearing. No live testimony was given.

People can continue to submit testimony to the school board until 5 p.m. on March 25 for consideration.

A second public hearing about the SRO program is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Thursday.

After a delay this winter, the school board is expected to make a decision about the future of the program in May.

Legislation

The Montgomery County Council is considering two bills on competing sides of the SRO debate.

A bill proposed by Council Members Hans Riemer and Will Jawando would ban MCPS from stationing police in schools.

A separate bill proposed by Council Members Craig Rice and Sidney Katz would keep police officers stationed in schools as long as the superintendent welcomed them, and require them to undergo more training.

The new proposal by Rice and Katz would legally authorize the county police chief to assign SROs to county schools, if requested by the MCPS superintendent.

The Maryland General Assembly is also considering at least two bills that would remove SROs from schools statewide.

One of the state bills from Montgomery County lawmakers, called the “Police Free Schools Act,” was filed by Del. Gabe Acevero. It would prohibit police officers from being stationed in schools.

The other, filed by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, the “Counselors not Cops Act,” would redirect a state fund that provides $10 million per year to school districts across the state to expand their SRO programs. The money would instead be used to provide districts with more mental health services and promote restorative justice practices.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com