2021 | Schools

MCPS principals say police officers stationed in schools are essential

School board will review resource officer program during Tuesday meeting

As a debate about whether police should be stationed in schools rekindles, Montgomery County principals are doubling down on their position that the officers are needed to run schools effectively.

In October, all 25 MCPS high school principals and the leaders of three special schools told the school board they support keeping school resource officers (SROs) in their buildings, despite calls for their removal by some students and activists who say the racial disparities in student arrests are beyond reform.

Again in December, the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals penned a letter to the school board urging it to continue the program, an option that is on the table as part of a comprehensive review of SROs.

“The School Resource Officer Program in Montgomery County has greatly benefited the school system,” the administrators’ union wrote in its letter. “… We need SROs in our schools.”

In an interview with Bethesda Beat last week, three principals and the union’s president, Christine Handy, said the comprehensive services the officers provide — relationship building, quick intervention when there are problems, security planning, education, real-time information about problems big and small — outweigh the drawbacks.

The most notable problem: Black and Hispanic children are arrested at significantly higher rates than their white peers.

“I want every child I’m responsible for in this building to be safe,” Clarksburg High School Principal Edward Owusu said. “As part of that safety measure, I have to fight to keep the SRO program because that’s an additional tool that’s a safety net for every single one of my students.”

On Tuesday, the school board will meet to review data compiled during the district’s six-month review. Superintendent Jack Smith will recommend whether to continue the program.

A Bethesda Beat review of publicly available student arrest data found that, while Black children make up about one-fifth of the student body, they represent nearly half of student arrests made between 2016 and 2019.

And while principals firmly support keeping police in schools, others in the community do not.

Many students and activists have been adamant and vocal in opposition to the program in recent months.

In the summer, when thousands took to the streets to protest police killings of Black people across the country, local protesters also called for local police reform and the removal of police from schools.

At one rally in downtown Silver Spring, a former MCPS student with disabilities said she was assaulted by an SRO while having a panic attack.

During a press conference in November, two County Council members spoke about their proposed legislation that, if passed, would prohibit MCPS from having SROs stationed in its schools. At that event, a former student said he was harassed and racially profiled by his school’s SRO.

The council legislation remains in progress. A public hearing that was scheduled for Tuesday has been postponed.

Groups like the Silver Spring Justice Coalition and MoCo Students for Change have called for an end to the program.

The principals who spoke to Bethesda Beat this week — Norman Coleman of Francis Scott Key Middle School, Billie Jean Benson of Rockville High School and Owusu of Clarksburg High School — said many of the people advocating for its end “haven’t had any problems personally.”

“If you talk to students and you ask them, ‘Have you, yourself had a negative interaction,’ I think the answer that you’re going to get is, ‘No … but my friend has or I know someone who has,’ ” Owusu said. “I have not run into those individuals who have said, ‘I don’t like this SRO because they did this to me.’ I haven’t heard that in my years as a principal. It’s more second- or third-hand.”

Asked what services and benefits SROs provide that can’t be replicated in other ways, Benson said the insight and expertise SROs have are unique to their positions.

Handy added that counselors and security staff members do not have the same experiences, training or insight about the community at-large. They don’t, for example, know what happened in the community over the weekend that might lead to conflict in schools on Monday. The security staff can’t enforce laws or make arrests.

But Handy said the key point is that Montgomery County high schools are large — enrolling up to 3,000 students.

“That’s the size of some people’s towns, and you would not have that size of a community without some type of law enforcement present,” Handy said. “ … Any time you bring a large number of people together, people want to feel safe. It makes people feel safe, and that’s the key.”

Each principal pointed to specific situations when their resource officer has been beneficial as examples for why they are needed.

One checked on a student having severe mental health problems. One identified a student who had a gun in their backpack. One has helped families sort out personal problems that the school staff wasn’t equipped to handle.

The union that represents Montgomery County police has said it opposes discontinuing the SRO program, and several council members, including President Sidney Katz, have echoed the sentiment.

Still, if the SRO program continues, it must be improved, the principals said. To do that, there should be more collaborative cultural sensitivity training between the police and school district to better align procedures and expectations, they said.

Each principal acknowledged that the disproportionate arrests of Black and Hispanic students is problematic and it will take time to repair relationships with those students.

Coleman and Owusu encouraged students who do not feel safe around the SROs to sit down and talk with them, creating a positive personal relationship.

“We have to have a dialogue and understand that fear to close that gap to bring some healing to the school environment,” Coleman said.

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