This story was updated at 12:15 p.m. April 27, 2022, to correct the location of Col. Zadok Magruder High School.
Tuesday marked the first time that Montgomery County Council members were given an opportunity to ask questions about a new agreement between county police and Montgomery County Public Schools that outlines police officer involvement in schools. Some were supportive of the measure, while others expressed concerns about the agreement, dated April 4 and signed April 19 by the remaining parties, and spoke about how they want it changed.
The agreement sets a new model for the use of community engagement officers, a school policing model that was put into place last fall. The program calls for a police officer to be assigned to each high school and other schools within their respective clusters.
One of the changes between the initial community engagement officer model and the new agreement is that officers will have dedicated office space within each school. MCPS officials and Carmen Facciolo, assistant chief of the Community Resources Bureau for the county police department, said that the office space would be located in an area that students don’t regularly travel through.
So officers will not be patrolling the hallways, Facciolo said. As under the prior model, they also won’t be participating in school discipline.
The agreement states the following about the assigned space for the officers: “The administrator at each high school will provide a private designated space/office in proximity to the main office with access to a telephone. As needed, the [community engagement officer] will have access to that space but will not be permanently stationed in that office.”
According to the agreement, police shall take the lead in investigating incidents involving the following:
- Rape or nonconsensual sexual acts/contact
- Robbery/attempted robbery
- Hate crimes
- Possession of a firearm or dangerous or deadly weapon (meaning a student knowingly brought or brandished one on school property)
- Gang-related crimes/incidents
It also states that school principals and or school staff will have a direct line to the community engagement officer, or a designee for that officer. They can call the officer at any point — except for when reporting incidents in which the type of response would vary depending on the severity of the incident. In those cases, principals are required to call police.
Several council members said they liked multiple aspects of the new agreement, calling it a compromise between community members who support a return to a former program in which officers patrolled school hallways and those who don’t want police in schools.
Council Member Craig Rice said the new model still needed work. He asked Montgomery County Police chief Marcus Jones and the police department to begin providing regular updates on situations when intervention by a police officer may have kept an incident from escalating.
Rice added that more effort must be devoted to looking at how schools address bullying. But he said the agreement is a good foundation, despite the fact that it won’t please everyone.
“Often times, we forget that we have to make sure that we’re listening to all voices, not just those are the loudest, not just those that are well-connected, but all voices,” Rice said.
Others, however, were concerned that the agreement was a step in the wrong direction. Council Member Will Jawando said that multiple studies and data show that the presence of police officers does not ultimately lead to safer schools, and that students of color often struggle with mental health issues arising from that presence.
More specifically, Jawando said the change in the community engagement officer model means that school and county officials won’t be able to determine if other measures such as investments in mental health resources and other needs are truly working.
School officials said Tuesday MCPS has hired 28 social workers to help serve those needs. County officials also approved $8 million for opening wellness centers in every high school — an initiative spearheaded by Council Member Nancy Navarro and meant to provide holistic care for high school students.
Still, Jawando said Tuesday he remained skeptical that having police officers in schools improves safety. He said he understands that many are concerned — especially in light of the January shooting at Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood — but added that reversing course was not a smart policy decision.
“This idea that a police officer in a school keeps people safe, is at best, unproven,” Jawando said.
He also asked if it would be better for resources to be dedicated to providing more mental health professionals and services in schools instead of requiring community engagement officers to be trained in conflict resolution, youth development and other areas, which is required in the agreement.
Jones said the training is important for officers, especially because they will be dealing with young people in schools. Forming better relationships with students and staff can help prevent incidents from occurring, he said.
According to the agreement, community engagement officers will be chosen by law enforcement agencies, which include the municipal police forces countywide. MCPS can select someone to work in an “advisory capacity” during the interview process, the agreement states.
Officers selected for the program must undergo 40 hours of training, which includes details about the program and several other areas including: “threat assessment training, mediation and conflict resolution, childhood and adolescent development, alcohol/drug awareness, gang awareness, truancy, child abuse and neglect, and county/community-based supports and outreach resources.”
They also must participate in biannual training with MCPS administrators and/or school security staff on topics involved in the agreement.
Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Monifa McKnight agreed that officers should be trained in the areas covered by the agreement. Whether intervention is provided by a police officer or a school staff member, training in mental health issues will help, she said.
“It’s not an either/or [situation],” McKnight said. “I think the people who are trained in mental health, we need to get every single one of them available to our students and in our buildings to support what they need.”
“For us to deal with the systemic issues that we’re talking about, that means we all have to invest in the changes that we want to make,” she added. “And if training is a conduit to that, then I want to have better trained officers to work with all of our students.”
Council Member Hans Riemer said that the new agreement was the result of years of tough dialogue in the community about what school safety should look like. He and all of his colleagues who spoke Tuesday agree that keeping students safe is the common goal, but they want to know how county police and officials can achieve that goal.
Riemer said the agreement wasn’t everything he wanted, but added that there were some important positives — like the fact that a student caught with marijuana will be treated more leniently than in the past.
He got emotional while describing his experience as a volunteer during the past couple of weeks at Takoma Park Middle School, where his son is in eighth grade. After police were called for a fight between students that happened recently, parents started working with the principal and security staff to change how students interact with staff and each other in the hallways and at lunch, he said.
By identifying problem areas where interactions could escalate, he said parents and school staff were able to make improvements.
“The effective management of the school grounds and the kids has resulted in … a very positive environment,” Riemer said.
That scenario isn’t the solution for all schools, but parent involvement can likely provide a huge help, Riemer said.
Council members, police and MCPS officials acknowledged the creation of the new agreement would not mark the end of the issue and that the agreement may be changed again.
“Clearly, this is a ‘to be continued,’” council President Gabe Albornoz said.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org