2020 | Schools

Council members want to end MCPS school resource officer program

Student groups back proposal; principals oppose idea

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Montgomery County Council Members Hans Riemer, left, and Will Jawando

File photos

This story and a headline were updated at 11:20 p.m., Nov. 18, 2020, to include a statement from MCEA, clarifying its position about the proposed legislation.

With backing from student activist groups and some community organizations, two Montgomery County Council members on Tuesday introduced a bill to prohibit the state’s largest school district from having police officers stationed in its buildings.

The legislation, co-sponsored by Council Members Will Jawando and Hans Riemer, would pull resource officers currently employed at each of Montgomery County Public Schools’ 26 high schools.

The council members pointed to data that show school resource officers, often referred to as SROs, arrest Black and Hispanic students at a higher rate than white students, and the long-term effects of those arrests on students’ mental health and future police interactions.

“This is not really about our police officers themselves. They’re doing what they were hired to do. They make arrests. That’s what police officers do,” Riemer said. “… I think that’s really the fundamental problem, is we have a system now that prioritizes allowing principals to [have police] quickly make arrests when there are incidents, and keep the train moving. But that is not necessarily the best approach.”

The county funds the SRO program through the police department’s budget. Eliminating police stationed in schools would save up to $3 million, Jawando said during a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

The savings would be redirected to more mental health services, restorative justice training and other school support programs.

The resource officers would be reassigned to different assignments within the police department — maybe even patrolling school areas, Jawando said — so the cost savings would come largely from “backfilling” already vacant positions within the department.

The school district in June, prompted by instances of police brutality across the country, launched its own review of the SRO program, to determine if it should be discontinued.

The school board directed Superintendent Jack Smith to gather and review three years of data about arrests of students made on school property, or stemming from incidents that occurred on school property.

Local data align with national trends.

In MCPS, 460 students were arrested in the past three school years, according to data presented to the school board last month. 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 district data.

Students were most commonly arrested for possessing drugs or weapons and for attacking other students, according to the data. The data were not broken down by school.

Smith is expected to make a recommendation about the future of the program in January. Several County Council members — including Nancy Navarro, Sidney Katz, Gabe Albornoz, Andrew Friedson and Craig Rice — have said the county should wait for the school board to finish its review before considering its own actions.

“To just get in front of the Board of Education and completely dismiss their role, to me, is a mistake, and I don’t care that we fund it. The bottom line is that it’s their schools,” said Navarro, a former school board member.

Katz, the council president, called the bill “premature legislation” and said he takes “great exception to the fact that (Riemer) said (SROs’) job is to make arrests, because that is not accurate.”

“Their job is to be mentors and I have seen that in high schools throughout Montgomery County,” Katz said. “… I’m not suggesting everything is perfect, but what I am suggesting is we wait to hear from the Board of Education.”

Katz and Craig Rice, who chairs the Council’s Education and Culture Committee, said they are skeptical the move will save money.

Rice said that even though he believes in the program, he “will be the first one to cast a vote to take out school resource officers” if the school board says it wants to eliminate the program, a sentiment seconded by Katz.

But Jawando and Riemer said it is the local government’s responsibility to manage the program because it is funded by the county. And, they said, the council has the authority to order the removal of resource officers from schools, and can overrule the preference of MCPS and the Board of Education.

The data alone are cause for action, Jawando said.

“We must make these changes now and reallocate these resources and support all students, their safety, their mental health, their well-being,” Jawando said. “… We have to recognize that schools should not be a place that contributes to these horrible numbers.”

Riemer added: “I recognize that occasionally there are serious, violent incidents or threats that indeed may require an arrest. But, as a general practice, arresting a student is giving up on that student.”

Both Riemer and Jawando said they will not change their positions if the school district decides it would like to keep SROs employed in schools.

On several occasions over the past two years ,when asked for his opinion about the SRO program, Smith has deferred to the county government because it has the authority.

Asked about the legislation during an unrelated press conference on Monday, Smith said, “I don’t have an opinion about the legislation. I really don’t.”

“Have SROs been beneficial? Yes, but there’s also data that is cause for concern,” Smith said.

A public hearing about the proposed bill is scheduled for Jan. 12.

Lisa Hack, a member of the Montgomery County Education Association, said during Tuesday’s press conference that she was representing the union and that the union supports the legislation.

“This is my 20th year as an MCPS employee in both middle and high schools, and I am representing MCEA today,” Hack said. “I would like to thank Council Members Jawando and Riemer for their leadership on this issue. MCEA, the union of Montgomery County educators, supports a package of bills that removes police from schools, and instead invests in student support services.”

However, MCEA released a statement Wednesday night that says the union actually “has not adopted a formal position” on the bill.

The statement says “some reports and social media posts have misrepresented the process and conversation” about the union’s position on the issue.

The statement also says there is an internal divide within the union about the use of school resource officers.

“Many educators have raised the question of whether some of that funding for vital student mental health resources and services should potentially be gleaned from existing SRO allocations — while others feel the opposite.”

MCEA represents about 14,000 educators in MCPS.

On Tuesday, Hack said students’ referrals to school counselors, crisis centers and Child Protective Services increased last academic year, and MCPS needs a stronger investment in counselors and nurses.

For years, advocates have pressured the county government to provide more funding for school nurses, counselors and psychologists, because, according to MCPS data, these employees usually serve hundreds of students each.

Several student activists also spoke in support of the legislation on Tuesday.

But some have spoken up in support of keeping the SRO program.

Notably, every high school principal has pledged their support of the program, according to MCPS.

They say the officers are critical to the effective operation of their schools, building relationships with students, crisis planning and quickly snuffing out brewing problems.

Some families argue that, while there’s data about the disparate arrests of minority students, it’s impossible to track the problems that officers have helped prevent and their benefits.

Others fear that removing officers will put their children more at risk of serious injury or death if there is a safety threat.

Jawando countered, saying there’s no data proving students are safer in schools with police present, and some schools in the U.S. have had resource officers present when mass shootings have occurred.

“So, the concern about ‘I feel safer’ doesn’t really correlate with actual risk,” Riemer added. “I think we can all band together to find a better approach that keeps us safe, and does not create disparate outcomes.”

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