2021 | Schools

Some students push back on school safety task force

Community resource officer model and student representation inadequate, group says

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A group of Montgomery County students is pushing back against a new task force aimed at “reimagining” school safety, saying it does not do enough to remove police from buildings and fails to prioritize students’ input.

During a press conference last week, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and representatives from the County Council, school district, police department and health department announced the new task force to “reshape public safety” and provide more mental health support to students.

The initiative focuses on removing school resource officers (SRO) from buildings and replacing them with a “community model.” Officers would not be stationed in schools. Instead, they would patrol larger geographic areas around schools.

The announcement came after nearly a year of fierce advocacy from some students and organizations aiming to remove police from schools. The movement came as reports of police brutality across the country received national attention and as local data showed Black, Hispanic and special education students arrested at far higher rates than their peers.

County leaders have said the “community model” would strike a critical balance of removing the officers from school buildings but still providing “adequate local law enforcement coverage,” as required by state law.

But in a statement on Tuesday, advocacy group Montgomery County Defund Policing & Invest in Communities Coalition said the initiative “seems designed to build a case for the community resource officer model” rather than objectively examining officers’ roles in schools.

The coalition is comprised of 11 student organizations and 20 other social justice and faith groups.

“This is not removing police from schools. It is just moving them outside the buildings — and, in the case of elementary and middle schools, adding new police presence where there was none before,” the statement said. “Advocates for police-free schools agree that now … is the time to transform school safety. Any re-branding of SROs as (community resource officers) will not only criminalize high school students, but students of all ages, and worsen the experiences of youth in already-over policed areas of our County.”

The group also took aim at what they expect will be a lack of student representation on the task force.

During last week’s press conference, county leaders said the initiative would be complemented by one County Council Members Will Jawando and Craig Rice announced this month, focused on determining what social-emotional supports local students need in place of armed police in schools.

Jawando said his and Rice’s group will mostly consist of student representatives who will offer ideas and recommendations to the larger “steering committee.”

In its statement, the coalition wrote that the group will only “recommend student behavioral supports, with no mention of the future of law enforcement officers in or around” schools, and there is no “guarantee that students’ recommendations will be adopted by the Executive’s task force.”

“Our coalition recognizes the irony of the way in which the ‘Reimagining School Safety and Students’ Well-Being Initiative’ was thrown together without due participation from students, despite claims otherwise,” said Lauren Payne, president of Young People for Progress. “We are also deeply concerned that the Executive’s initiative will pay lip service to student participation while centering the voices of the police department, the very organization we are demanding be removed from schools and considerations of student wellness and safety.”

The members of the steering committee have not been announced publicly, but Elrich has said it will also include some students.

In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, Jawando wrote that he understands the students’ frustrations. His and Rice’s committee is “purposefully student centered with half of the membership comprised of students” and “the recommendations that come out of the taskforce will absolutely inform and drive the county’s budgetary, policy and implementation decisions that follow.”

He wrote that he also has concerns about the “community model” and believes police should only be called in “the most urgent, life-threatening scenarios” which should be explicitly defined by the task force and school system.

“Police will not be in schools next year and while there is certainly more work to do to define in what limited circumstances police will be called into the building and how they will interact with our schools, the investments in the social/emotional, mental health and wrap around services that are the focus of our taskforce, are critical to moving past an enforcement model of school safety and wellness,” Jawando wrote.

The Defund Policing & Invest in Communities Coalition called for the removal of police from all schools and prohibiting them from being assigned to schools and school clusters.

It also asked for:
• funding for a full-time social worker in every school
• rigorous restorative justice practices to be implemented
• mental health support for students
• development of a crisis response plan that explicitly states when police should be contacted.

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