2021 | Schools

Council announces task force to explore social-emotional needs of MCPS students

Rice changes position on school resource officers; he is now opposed to them

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Montgomery County Council members and the public school district have launched a new task force to determine what social-emotional supports local students need in place of armed police in schools.

During a press conference on Monday morning, Council Members Will Jawando and Craig Rice announced the task force. It will be composed of students, teachers, administrators and health care officials with a goal of “growing the cohort of mental health professionals and other support services in schools.”

The task force is expected to make recommendations to MCPS and the County Council by July, and “at least some” of the recommendations will be implemented by the start of the next academic year, Jawando said.

For years, community members have advocated for more counselors and psychologists in MCPS, pointing to data that show each of the district’s psychologists serves, on average, 1,800 students and that counselors have a caseload of about 600 students each.

While the task force is focused on increasing mental health support opportunities for students, Jawando said it will also focus on restorative justice practices and finding other ways adults in the school system can provide more focused mentorship for students.

The task force is part of a push to remove police from schools.

“For far too long, police have been used as a crutch … with dire consequences,” Jawando said. “Our current systems are not working for Black and brown and disabled students, serving as an entry point to the school to prison pipeline and criminalizing youth.”

Over the past year, the County Council has been considering competing legislation about the district’s school resource officer (SRO) program — one bill aimed at disbanding the program, and the other geared toward keeping it in place.

Until Monday, Rice seemed firmly in the camp of keeping police in schools and was a sponsor of a bill to support that position. He has often said during public meetings that the officers are role models and promote community building.

But, during Monday’s press conference, Rice said that listening to testimony about the proposed bills, particularly from students who shared how SROs have affected them, has changed his mind.

Students who have spoken up have largely advocated for the removal of police from schools because Black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities are arrested at disproportionate rates compared to their white peers.

Other community members have argued that the officers are important to ensure school safety.

“We can still accomplish the same thing with other adults. It doesn’t have to be sworn police officers,” Rice said. “… Our commitment is to our kids, to making sure that they’re safe, to making sure they’re protected … so they walk in the classroom solely focused on one thing: being able to learn, being able to achieve and grow, so they can move on to the next chapters of their lives.”

There has been a renewed interest in police interaction with Montgomery County children after a video surfaced last month that showed two officers berating, screaming at and handcuffing a 5-year-old boy who had walked away from school.

The video was released more than a year after the incident.

Some have pointed to the incident as an example of why police should only be called on for life-threatening or similarly serious situations. Others say it highlights why officers specially trained in interacting with children are needed.

After having a public discussion of the incident at a council meeting on April 6, the County Council will have a closed session to further discuss details on Tuesday.

At last week’s public discussion, county officials would not answer council members’ questions that specifically addressed certain details and facts of the case, as well as employee discipline, because of pending litigation.

“We wanted to call that public briefing to find out what we could, although we couldn’t find out everything we wanted because of the pending litigation around this issue,” Council President Tom Hucker said Monday during a media briefing.

Hucker said council members expect to find out more information from the police department and school system during the closed session.

Staff writer Briana Adhikusuma contributed to this story.

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