2022 | Schools

County police, school officials unpack the latest school safety agreement

Restorative justice programs could be added during the summer

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As the calendar year for Montgomery County Public Schools winds down — with classes ending June 17 — school officials and local law enforcement have been implementing a new agreement that brings police officers back into school buildings.

The agreement brings back the officers in a limited form — they will not be patrolling hallways and will only have a designated space near the front office or administrative areas. The officers, known as community engagement officers, will not be in those spaces for long periods, instead checking in at high schools and other schools in each cluster.

School and Montgomery County police officials said in interviews last week that they’re confident that enforcement will be consistent across schools because all of the community engagement officers will receive training and data will be collected to document how they interact with students.

According to the former memorandum of understanding — signed between county schools, county police and other police agencies last summer — and the current one, which was signed by the same parties and deemed effective April 4, each community engagement officer will undergo 40 hours of training. Officers will receive training on topics including:

  • Role of the community engagement officer and review of the MOU
  • Review of the MCPS Code of Conduct
  • Review of law enforcement agencies’ roles and regulations regarding juvenile arrests/investigations
  • Emergency preparedness
  • Threat assessment 
  • Mediation and conflict resolution
  • Childhood and adolescent development
  • Alcohol/drug awareness
  • Child abuse and neglect

“The MOU is a starting place…[it’s] making sure that everyone understands [it], meaning we don’t just leave the document up to [officers’] interpretation, but clarifying with them exactly what it means: what we will do, what this person won’t do, and why that’s important,” MCPS Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said in an interview. 

The rollout of the MOU will lead to opportunities for future training, McKnight added.

There are similarities between the former agreement and the most recent one regarding when police shall take the lead in investigating incidents. They include incidents involving:

  • Death
  • Rape or sexual assault by another person by force or threat of force (in the new agreement, this is called “Rape or nonconsensual sexual acts/contact”)
  • Robbery/intimidation (by a perpetrator that is armed or unarmed)
  • Hate crimes
  • Possession of a firearm, or brandishing a firearm or deadly weapon on school property

The new agreement, however, changes the guidelines concerning when school officials can use their discretion in deciding whether to involve a community engagement officer in an incident. Those changes include:

  • Increasing the threshold for theft from $500 to $1,500
  • Police will only confiscate marijuana if an officer finds the drug in a student’s possession (Previously, students could be disciplined or charged)
  • Arson (such incidents formerly required police involvement)

Carmen Facciolo, assistant chief of the county police’s Community Resources Bureau, said in an interview that police are re quired by law to respond to some violent offenses at school. In other cases, law enforcement officials and school officials would come to an agreement about how certain incidents would be handled, he added.

The notable change in the agreement, he said, is related to how police respond to students who are found in possession of marijuana. 

According to the agreement, school principals can call police if they find a student with marijuana. Police will then come to the school to pick up marijuana that is seized and then destroy it, but officers won’t arrest students, Facciolo said.

“We don’t want information related to the student that was involved in the process because we do not want to be disproportionately targeting individuals of color, young people of color,”  Facciolo said.

Police won’t file reports or take formal action against students in such incidents. School officials could discipline students, though, according to the agreement. 

One of the other major changes in the new agreement is regarding the space that community engagement officers will have in each school. They’ll have a designated workspace near school administrators and will be able to confer with them on a regular basis, according to the document.

Previously, officers would patrol schools within a cluster, but not be inside school buildings. Under a program that predates the community engagement officer model, police officers trained as school resource officers patrolled school hallways and monitored busy areas such as cafeterias.

Facciolo said he didn’t want to limit the amount of time that community engagement officers should spend in buildings. The point of the change, he said, is to allow officers to confer with school administrators about student activity as well as the nuances of each school environment and the surrounding neighborhoods.

It’s important that such conversations happen in a private space away from students and teachers, Facciolo said.

Why did different parties sign the MOU at different points? What might happen over the summer?

According to the most recent agreement, different parties signed at various dates in April. The last to sign the agreement were McKnight and Stephanie Williams, general counsel for MCPS, on April 19.

Facciolo, McKnight and Jimmy D’Andrea, McKnight’s chief of staff, said that the reason behind the different signing dates was because each change in the draft agreement had to be approved by each party. They said the changes were mostly minor and related to language in the agreement, which underwent a thorough legal review by the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s office and county attorneys. Facciolo said the state’s attorney’s office needed to make sure the MOU complied with state law. 

During a County Council meeting last week, McKnight and D’Andrea said restorative justice practices and similar initiatives could be added to the agreement in the future, including the possible involvement of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. 

In an interview, D’Andrea said there are “active conversations” involving student groups and other parties and that restorative justice and related programs could be implemented into the MOU over the summer. 

In the council meeting, County Council Member Hans Riemer detailed work he and other parents at Takoma Park Middle School — which one of his sons attends — undertook with school staff. Parents and school staff, through a more effective management of school grounds, were able to make the school safer after a recent fight between two students, Riemer said. 

McKnight said she’s open to incorporating such efforts into schools — noting the “Dads on Duty” program at Seneca Valley High School in which students’ fathers helped improve the overall school environment. 

It’s up to everyone — not just MCPS and the county police — to address the issue of school safety, she said. D’Andrea said the parent involvement at Takoma Park Middle School was laudable, but he noted that each school has its own nuances, depending on the layout of the building, how many students eat lunch together, and other factors.

“Any time that we can approach the issue that we’re trying to solve as a community, that’s the approach,” McKnight said.  

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com