This story was updated at 6:10 p.m. June 11, 2020, to correct a reference to a proposed expansion of the school resource officer program. County Executive Marc Elrich proposed the expansion, not the Montgomery County Council.
As a national debate reignites over whether schools should employ police officers, the Montgomery County Board of Education on Thursday directed the superintendent to review the program and recommend whether to remove officers from local schools.
In a unanimous vote, the school board passed a resolution directed MCPS 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 data will be shared with the school board and the public by October. Smith will recommend by January whether to modify or end the school resource officer program.
Explaining their decision, school board members cited national data that show that black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or suspended than their white peers, and that the presence of resource officers create more disparate outcomes.
Student member Nate Tinbite explicitly said he wants resource officers removed from local schools.
“The time to end criminalization of our children is now — it’s today,” Tinbite said. “… We should not normalize the militarization of our schools.”
Other school board members were noncommittal, but said “it is a good idea” to review the program’s effectiveness.
School districts across the country have decided or are considering removing resource officers and police from their buildings in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Floyd, a black man, died in May after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes. The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with murder. He and three other officers have been fired in response to the incident.
Shortly after, the University of Minnesota announced it will no longer use the police department for “specialized services needed for university events,” according to a message from the university’s president to the school community.
In Maryland, a Prince George’s County school board committee voted this week to end its relationship with the local police department and remove officers from school.
The full school board is scheduled to consider the proposal this month.
Each of Montgomery County’s 26 high schools, and many middle schools, employ a resource officer — a sworn county police officer to help resolve conflicts and intervene when a student, employee or community member poses a threat to themselves or others.
Civil rights activists across the country have long argued, however, that black students are referred to law enforcement more often than their peers and that resource officers are too often engaged in routine disciplinary actions that should be handled by teachers and administrators.
In MCPS, 5.1% of all black high school students were suspended in 2019, according to school district data. While resource officers do not make disciplinary decisions regarding suspensions, they do often respond to serious incidents in schools that could lead to suspensions.
About 3.1% of all Hispanic high school students were suspended in 2019, but no other racial group of students had more than 3% of its population suspended, according to MCPS data. Data about those groups are not released publicly to comply with federal student privacy laws.
With approximately 166,000 students, MCPS is the largest school district in Maryland and one of the largest in the country. About 27% of students are white, 32% are Hispanic, 21% are black and 14% are Asian, according to school district data.
The Maryland Safe to Learn Act of 2018, passed following the mass shooting of students at a high school in Florida, requires that all public schools have an assigned school resource officer or “adequate local law enforcement coverage.” What constitutes adequate law enforcement coverage is not defined in the law.
The school board’s resolution asks Smith to explore what methods school districts of similar size use for student safety measures if they do not have resource officers.
It says Smith should explore “whether the presence of SROs is compatible with MCPS goals.” It also says there are “open questions” about whether their presence improves the academic environment or “results in significantly safer schools.”
Smith said funding for the school resource officer program is provided by the county government, so government leaders will be involved in the discussion.
Last year, County Executive Marc Elrich proposed expanding the MCPS resource officer program to all local middle schools. However, the County Council ditched the proposal in March after impassioned testimony from community members who said having more police officers in schools could lead to disproportionate discipline against minority and special education students.
Also in March, the county police department pursued a state grant that would have allowed the program to be implemented in more middle schools, but council members pushed back. Elrich at the time said he directed the police department to “investigate other uses” of the money, if received.
When asked by Bethesda Beat in March, Smith did not take a position about whether MCPS needs more resource officers.
“School resource officers are one part of the puzzle of school safety,” Smith said at the time. “They play a very important role and serve a very good purpose within our schools and certainly any resources we are provided, we will have a process about how to best use them and deploy them.”
On Thursday, Smith agreed with board members that it is “critical” to examine the program and student discipline data.
He emphasized that when he was a school administrator from 1986 to 2002, police officers were not assigned to schools.
“I worked in middle and high schools and never worked in a situation where I had a full time SRO. We in the school handled that information,” Smith said. “… I don’t really have strong biases or personal experiences to work from in this and I think that’s a benefit.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org