2021 | Schools

County, state lawmakers’ battle over school resource officers intensifies

Council considering dueling legislation; state bills propose eliminating SROs, redirecting funding

A community member holds a sign calling for an investment in community services rather than police at a recent protest in Gaithersburg. At the protest, attendees called for an end to the MCPS school resource officer program.

File photo

A battle among state and local lawmakers about the future of police stationed in schools is intensifying, with County Council members now considering dueling legislation.

The issue is gaining traction statewide, too. Two state lawmakers from Montgomery County are sponsoring bills that would prohibit police officers from being stationed in schools across Maryland and redirect state money that would have funded the program.

In November, as community debate about the police officers — known as school resource officers — grew, Montgomery County Council members Hans Riemer and Will Jawando proposed a bill that would prohibit MCPS from having them stationed in schools.

The proposal was met with praise from some community members, students and activist groups who argue that SROs disproportionately arrest Black and Hispanic students, and make some students feel unsafe and uncomfortable at school, criminalizing misbehavior that is better addressed by other means.

But the bill was also criticized by the local police union, principals, some parents and some County Council members who said the officers keep students safe and help “build community.”

On Tuesday, Council Members Craig Rice and Sidney Katz introduced a separate bill that is the opposite of Riemer’s and Jawando’s bill, creating a dividing line among county lawmakers.

The bill by Rice and Katz would keep police officers stationed in schools as long as the superintendent welcomed them, and require them to undergo more training.

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.

Meanwhile, the Montgomery County Board of Education has its own ongoing review to determine the future of its program with officers in schools.

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. It would also require new school officers to undergo a year of “mentoring” from an “experienced and highly rated school resource officer” and several different types of training.

The bill does not say how the county would measure experience or “highly rated” SROs.

“This bill allows for flexibility for the Board of Education, and for everyone else involved,” Katz said. “I sincerely believe that the county government can and should be the leader, and ultimately the prototype, on how this issue is resolved to the betterment for all involved.”

But Jawando argued that the Rice-Katz proposal doesn’t give the school board any new flexibility in running the program, and instead mandates what kind of training SROs take, which limits the school board’s authority.

Rice said the bill “gives us another option” to “reimagine” the SRO program if the school board wants to continue it.

A public hearing about the Jawando-Riemer proposal to ban SROs is scheduled for Thursday evening. A public hearing about the Rice-Katz bill keeping officers is scheduled for Feb. 23.

The fate of the two bills will depend on the five council members who are not co-sponsors of either: Nancy Navarro, Andrew Friedson, Gabe Albornoz, Evan Glass and Tom Hucker.

In recent months, those five council members have taken positions about SROs, but less definitively than their peers.

In July, the council considered whether to reassign 12 of the 23 active SRO positions to other duties. Jawando, Riemer, Glass and Hucker voted in favor of the reassignments. Katz, Rice, Albornoz, Friedson and Navarro voted to keep them employed in schools.

More recently, after Riemer and Jawando unveiled their plan to ban officers from schools, several council members pushed back.

Navarro, Katz, Albornoz, Friedson and Rice said at the time that the county should not act on the legislation until the school board completes its ongoing review of the SRO program.

The school board launched its review in June to determine if the program should be changed or 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. The analysis was expected to be completed in January, but was recently extended until May.

Local arrest data align with national trends.

In MCPS, 460 students were arrested in the past three school years, according to school district data obtained by Bethesda Beat. 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 on charges of possessing drugs or weapons and for attacking other students, according to the data. The data were not broken down by school.

Public debate about school resource officers has focused on safety vs. equity, with proponents of the program saying that arrest data, while skewed, might reflect the racial breakdown of which students commit crimes.

Advocates argue that Black and Hispanic students are targeted and punished more harshly than their peers for the same transgressions.

State legislation

Two newly proposed bills before the General Assembly could mean the answer comes from the State House in Annapolis instead of the County Council office in Rockville.

Tuesday morning, hours before Rice and Katz announced their proposed local bill, Wilkins and Acevero held a press conference to promote their two proposed state bills regarding SROs.

The two bills together would help reduce the arrest of children in schools, Acevero said, and help dismantle the “school to prison pipeline.”

“When we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, absent from that conversation is the role that police in schools … play in perpetuating this pipeline that siphons black, Latinx, LGBTQ students and students with disabilities from the classroom to the jailhouse,” Acevero said. “And it forces them to navigate a complex legal system, but also traumatizes children, and … it also disrupts their education.”

Wilkins added that the bills aren’t just about removing SROs from schools, but “transforming our schools to ensure that all of our children thrive academically, feel safe and supported.”

She said state leaders “can’t continue to fund and champion a program” that disproportionately targets Black and Hispanic students, and students with disabilities.

School safety, she said, isn’t just about police, but about providing districts with counselors, nurses, psychologists and other “interventions” that are proactive to prevent problems, rather than reactive when a problem arises.

Who has the authority to remove SROs?

Ultimately, if the proposed state legislation passes, the two County Council bills and the school board’s review could be moot. Neither the county nor the school district can have laws or policies that are less restrictive than state law.

Some Montgomery County Council members have balked at their peers’ pitch to ban school police officers because they don’t want to “overstep” and assert authority over the school district while it is coming to its own conclusion.

During a meeting in November, Navarro said it would be “paternalistic” for the council, which has eight men and one woman, to interfere with the school board, which is made up of seven women and the student member, who is male.

Riemer and Jawando argued at the time that 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 it can overrule the preference of MCPS and the Board of Education.

During Tuesday’s press conference announcing the state legislation, Acevero said a statewide approach to discontinuing SROs is better.

The $10 million in state funding each year “really encourages” districts to employ SROs, he said, and some jurisdictions feel like their “hands are tied” to meet state requirements mandating that schools provide “adequate local law enforcement coverage.”

“It should be a collaborative effort,” Acevero said, “but it should be one where state legislators are taking the lead.”

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