2021 | Schools

School discipline, policing work group recommends more restorative justice, mental health resources

Group says officers should not be stationed in or around schools

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A committee tasked with reviewing Montgomery County Public Schools’ student discipline procedures released a new report this week, again de-emphasizing the role of police and encouraging a stronger investment in restorative justice and mental health resources.

The group is the second to issue a set of recommendations on the topic for the state’s largest school district, and county officials said on Wednesday that they are pleased the two groups have largely similar ideas.

But in a key divergence, the Student Wellbeing Action Group’s (SWAG) report, released Tuesday, calls for police to no longer be assigned in or around schools.

The other group, called the Reimagining School Safety and Student Well-being committee, also recommended police not be stationed in schools, but supported a model the school district and county officials deployed this year to instead station officers in school communities.

This year, for the first time in about two decades, school resource officers were removed from the halls of MCPS high schools, replaced with “community engagement officers.”

Community engagement officers are assigned to geographic areas around schools rather than being stationed inside of school buildings. School officials do not call them directly to respond to incidents. Officials are expected to call 911 in emergencies and non-emergency numbers in other situations, and the officers would be dispatched to the scene, as applicable.

The SWAG report, however, asks for more in one of its recommendations: “Eliminate police presence on school campuses, meaning no consistent law enforcement presence on school campuses (police cannot be stationed inside, outside, or immediately around schools) as it would hinder our ability to move away from punitive punishment and subject students of color to the school to prison pipeline.”

When emergency personnel are called, the report says, its response should include “mobile crisis response teams” and should only include police in cases “involving violent crime as defined by” state law.

SWAG had 25 members, including eight students and representatives of various county agencies and groups.

During a call with reporters on Wednesday, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said the community engagement officer approach balances the students’ requests for less police presence in schools with the need to provide law enforcement coverage, as required by state law.

“This gives people who are dedicated and able to respond to the schools,” Elrich said. “So we’ve maintained that commitment and we’re going to make sure that it works.”

The SWAG report calls on MCPS to provide more robust restorative justice training for all district employees and to hire restorative justice practitioners in all schools. It also says the district should review its student code of conduct to codify when schools should use restorative justice approaches in student discipline.

“We want to emphasize that a shift to a culture of restorative justice in our schools is meant to deconstruct the power dynamic between student and teacher, allowing students to share equal responsibility in managing school climate,” the report says. “Restorative justice must NOT replace punitive discipline as a means of controlling students.”

Other recommendations include:

• Hiring more social workers who are culturally competent and informed about trauma. (MCPS Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said on Wednesday that the district has secured funding from the state to hire 50 additional social workers. The “aspirational” goal is to have them in schools by the start of the second semester, she said.)
• Hold regular meetings with students and student groups to gather feedback “to ensure well being needs are met.”
• Create “a number of cultural centers/educational enrichment hubs to provide MCPS schools with cultural experiences and programs in and outside of schools to engage youth and transform school climate with partnerships from community organizations.”

The group was created in April by Montgomery County Council members Craig Rice and Will Jawando, with a goal of “growing the cohort of mental health professionals and other support services in schools.”

In a separate report released in late August, another group reviewing MCPS’ relationship with police and student discipline issued its preliminary report, highlighting many of the same initiatives as the SWAG report.

That group — the Reimagining School Safety and Student Well-being committee — recommended that MCPS “look at root causes of behavior (from a mental health vs. delinquency lens) with funding for mental health supports rather than police response as a solution. It says the district should create a “crisis intervention decision tree” that defines agencies’ roles in responding. It also focuses heavily on restorative justice approaches and having someone in charge of those practices and procedures at every school.

The group will continue its work through December, reviewing the district’s memorandums of understanding with local police agencies.

Elrich formed the Reimagining School Safety and Student Well-being group in May to develop an “improvement plan” with recommendations, timelines for implementation and financial implications.

Both groups were formed in response to a push to remove police from schools that began in the summer of 2020 amid several high-profile assaults and killings of Black people by police across the country. There was a renewed interest in police interaction with Montgomery County children after a video surfaced in March that showed two officers berating, screaming at and handcuffing a 5-year-old boy who had walked away from school.

Some have pointed to the incident as an example of why police should only be called on for life-threatening or similarly serious situations. Others say it highlights why officers specially trained in interacting with children are needed.

Students who have spoken up about school resource officers have largely advocated for the removal of police from schools because Black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities are arrested at disproportionate rates compared to their white peers.

Other community members have argued that the officers are important to ensure school safety.

“There’s been evidence and incidents where police were there and things still happen,” Elrich said Wednesday. “So this is not a panacea against bad things. And, more importantly, I think (SROs) were contributing to a climate where students often feel unsafe and threatened.”

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