Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich joined representatives from the school district, health department, police department and County Council on Friday to announce a new initiative aimed at “rethinking and reshaping public safety in our schools” and providing mental health support to students.
The initiative, which county officials called “historic” and “precedent-setting,” will be led by a committee with representatives from local agencies.
An interim report is expected by June 15, Elrich said, and a final report with recommendations of changes is due by Sept. 30.
He said some initiatives could be implemented after the interim report is released.
Elrich committed earlier this year to removing police from schools and replacing them with a “community model” in which officers would not be stationed in schools but patrol larger geographic areas around schools.
He said on Friday that the COVID-19 pandemic has been “really, really disruptive” for children. It’s important, he said, to make sure MCPS can help students with their mental health needs as they return to schools.
“It’s now or never,” Elrich said. “This is our moment to address some of these underlying issues. … This is our chance to do something, so we’re going to work to improve the educational environment as quickly as possible.”
Elrich said the committee will work to identify the needs of students and staff members and develop memorandums of understanding with MCPS, the Department of Health and police department, to “codify” and define employees’ roles and responsibilities.
County officials will then develop a timeline and find funding to implement any recommended changes.
The initiative will be complemented by one County Council Members Will Jawando and Craig Rice announced this month, also focused on determining what social-emotional supports local students need in place of armed police in schools.
Jawando said his and Rice’s group will mostly consist of student representatives who will offer ideas and recommendations to the larger “steering committee” announced on Friday.
“They’ll work together,” Jawando said, adding that members of the student-centered group will be announced on Monday.
During Friday’s press conference, Council President Tom Hucker said he has “long believed” that police should not be in schools, but he “respects the diversity of opinions on this topic and the time it’s taken to reach the consensus we’ve reached today.”
“We’re all in agreement now that removing SROs from schools is in the best interest of our students and we must simultaneously invest in the resources to address mental, social and emotional needs of our students,” Hucker said.
Asked by Bethesda Beat if the new partnership signaled that the Board of Education agreed with Elrich and many County Council members’ position that police should be removed from schools, President Brenda Wolff said the board “likes the community approach where there’s a group of officers assigned to a cluster, so we know who is coming into our schools.”
She said the final report from a group tasked with reviewing the MCPS school resource officer program is scheduled to be reviewed at a meeting on May 11.
“Student learning is the district’s core purpose and we know that students perform better academically when they are healthy in mind, body and spirit,” Wolff said. “The two go hand in hand to produce young people who are successful in school and in life.”
Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones said that regardless of how SROs are deployed to support school safety, the officers will remain “as concerned about students’ health and safety and welfare as anyone in this county.”
“Our school resource officers have always had the students and staff … at the forefront of their concern and that is still the same today and I believe … that will remain to be always deep in their hearts,” Jones said. “But we know where we are today. We’ll look at whatever changes will be for the betterment of our students.”
Student school board member Nick Asante said the new task force’s work will set a “nationwide precedent.”
On Friday, county officials said they are concerned about students’ mental health and well-being after a long stretch of social isolation from their peers due to COVID-19.
“I have never been more concerned about the status of children and youth in our community,” Council Member Gabe Albornoz said. “… This is a critical moment in our history. It’s up to us right now to make sure that we get this right.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com