2021 | Schools

UPDATED: Elrich says he will remove police officers from schools

County, state legislation pending; MCPS doing its own review of school-based officers

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This story was updated at 10:25 a.m. March 16, 2021, to include a Twitter comment from FOP Lodge 35, a police union.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich on Monday said he plans to remove police from public high schools in the fall — instead, officers will be assigned to patrol communities and respond to incidents at schools when needed.

During a briefing announcing the county budget, he said, “The SROs will not be in schools,” referring to the school resource officer program.

“We are taking a very different approach,” Elrich said. “The state requires us to have a response plan for the county schools. We’re going to take police officers, they will have beats that will include wider areas that would encompass the different school districts. They will not be stationed in the schools.”

But his plan, also outlined during public meetings in recent weeks, is not a done deal.

The County Council also has been weighing in with different approaches through legislation, including competing bills to keep officers in schools and to remove them.

After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Montgomery County Board of Education began a review of its SRO program to determine if it should be discontinued.

A police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, cutting off his air supply. His death sparked protests across the country calling for police reform.

Shortly after, Montgomery County Council Members Hans Riemer and Will Jawando proposed a bill that would ban SROs from being stationed in Montgomery County schools. Then, Council Members Sidney Katz and Craig Rice proposed a competing bill that would allow officers to be in schools, if requested by the superintendent.

In an interview Monday night, Riemer said Elrich has the authority to reassign the SROs, but “I don’t think it’s the last word on this at all.”

The two council bills are still being considered, and Riemer said he does not believe Elrich’s proposal is sufficient because “it retains a role for police officers in the school discipline process.”

Under Elrich’s plan, police officers could respond to crises at schools from their beats in the surrounding community.

Elrich said he hopes to identify additional funding to put social workers in all of the county’s high schools.

“Our intention is to increase our support for our students, provide the flexibility of responses other than police officers, unless they are otherwise absolutely necessary,” he said.

Rich Madaleno, the county’s chief administrative officer, wrote in a text message Monday night that Elrich’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022 includes eliminating five vacant school resource officer positions from middle schools.

Elrich’s plan for the future of the full SRO program is “not from the budget,” he said.

The budget does not explicitly eliminate or reassign other school resource officers, but Elrich spoke more broadly about his intentions when reporters asked about the vacant positions being cut.

FOP Lodge 35, a union that represents Montgomery County police officers, posted on Twitter its objections to Elrich’s plan to cut positions.

In one tweet, the union wrote: “DEFUNDING the police has started in MoCo. We pray for our residents.”

MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said in an interview Monday night that the district was not aware of any definitive or imminent changes to its SRO program.

Along with the county legislation, the Maryland General Assembly is also considering at least two bills that would remove SROs from schools statewide.

One of the state bills from Montgomery County lawmakers, called the “Police Free Schools Act,” was filed by Del. Gabe Acevero (D-Montgomery Village). It would prohibit police officers from being stationed in schools.

The other, filed by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Silver Spring), 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.

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.

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.