A Chevy Chase mother is adding to community concerns about racial profiling in the Montgomery school system and police department after police and the Secret Service were called after her 10-year-old son was showing toy money on a school bus.
The boy was excited about learning to count money and practiced with fake bills purchased from the online retailer Amazon, according to an online petition started by his mother recounting the incident.
The boy, who has an undisclosed disability and an individualized education plan, attempted to share the fake money – with bright pink symbols and dotted lines to distinguish it as play money – by passing it out to his classmates on the school bus last month.
Later in the day, one of the bills was found at a school bus depot and after reviewing images captured by cameras on board the bus, “someone made the decision to call the police,” according to the petition.
A school system spokeswoman confirmed it was a school employee who called Montgomery County police.
“I have confirmed that we are to call the police if there is suspicion and/or evidence of a student trying to use counterfeit money to purchase something. But that wasn’t the case here and the police should not have been called,” Gboyinde Onijala, the spokeswoman, said in a statement.
The police went to the child’s school and questioned him and also contacted the Secret Service to assist with the investigation.
But, according to the mother, she was not contacted until the end of the school day.
“I just don’t understand,” she wrote. “I reviewed the disciplinary policy on Montgomery County Public School’s website; it makes no mention of what happens even if someone does indeed possess money that could be considered counterfeit. Nothing illegal occurred; who at Montgomery County Public Schools decided this was an offense that was of such a possible imminent danger to others that a call to law enforcement had to be made, instead of a call to mom?”
The mother could not be reached directly for comment and a county police spokesman said it is it is the department’s procedure to contact the Secret Service for allegations of counterfeit money.
The spokesman said county police policy does not mandate officers contact minors’ parents before speaking with a child, unless an arrest is made.
Officers met with the boy with the principal present, the spokesman said, and “asked general questions regarding the fake money, and determined there was no issue.”
“The officer then contacted the mother to let her know what happened, what the procedure was, and that we weren’t taking any action,” Capt. Tom Jordan, the spokesman said in a statement. “The officer wasn’t required to contact the parent, but did so anyway to make sure all questions were answered and to address any concerns she may have had.”
The play money was returned to the child, Jordan said.
In an update to the online petition, the mother said she has met with the commander of the substation that responded to the call to discuss the issue.
“As someone that always wants to see systemic change and progress, this could be a good start by identifying breakdowns in communication and protocol,” she wrote.
The Secret Service arrested 1,548 people as a result of counterfeit currency investigations in 2017, according to a report from the department. Possessing toy money is not illegal unless a person attempts to use the money to purchase a product or service, according to the report.
Onijala said staff are working with the mother to address her concerns and acknowledged “there were some clear missteps on our part” in reporting the incident to police.
Raising questions of racism and “over-policing,” the mother said the school system “must not allow this to happen again,” and said the county’s work around racial equity seems to be “just lip service.”
At a town hall last week to solicit feedback about Montgomery County’s next police chief, many residents raised concerns about allegations of mistreatment by police officers.
County police have attracted attention after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man in Silver Spring almost a year ago, and the use of the “n-word” by a white police officer toward black youths last month in White Oak.
The Montgomery County Council is drafting countywide racial equity and social justice legislation, expected to be passed in the fall, to ensure all county systems and efforts are focused on equity, according to County Council President Nancy Navarro.
Staff writer Charlie Wright contributed to this report.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org