2022 | Schools

What you need to know about police officers in Montgomery County schools

As MCPS finalizes new agreement with police department, answers to common questions

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Less than a year after police officers were removed from county schools, local leaders are considering reintroducing them to buildings in a limited capacity.

The change, proposed after an increase in “serious incidents” like assaults and weapons offenses, would give officers a place to work in buildings. However, officers wouldn’t patrol the hallways or get involved in student discipline.

Supporters of the move say police presence can deter crimes and provide faster response if something goes wrong.

Opponents argue that reintroducing officers to schools when students are struggling more with their mental health and social development after a year of virtual classes could be a bad idea. The move might exacerbate the disproportionate arrests of Black and Hispanic students, and students in special education programs, opponents say.

The process to remove school resource officers, generally called SROs, started in the summer of 2020 as calls for racial justice sparked protests across the country. The debate caused tense debates within Montgomery County about the balance of school safety and caring for students’ mental health needs.

Eventually, County Executive Marc Elrich pulled funding for the SRO program, causing officers to leave their school assignments, and unveiled a new school safety model, called the community engagement officer (CEO) program.

Now, Montgomery County Public Schools and the county police department are working on a new agreement that modifies the community engagement officer program to respond to the rise in safety incidents.

MCPS spokesman Chris Cram wrote in a text message on Friday morning that he expects the memorandum of understanding between MCPS and county police will be signed Monday. 

Here are answers to some common questions about SROs, CEOs and school safety:

Who’s responsible for school safety in Montgomery County?

The answer isn’t as clear cut as some might expect. School safety has many different layers, and only one of those is whether police officers are stationed in school buildings.

Because police, including school resource officers and community engagement officers, are police department employees, they are ultimately governed by the county government, not the school district. That’s why Elrich could make the decision last year to remove SROs from schools — a move school board members at the time said “took the decision out of our hands.

That’s not to say county leaders don’t work closely with MCPS to make decisions. But, ultimately, the duties of police officers is a county matter.

Other safety matters, like security officers and student discipline, are under the purview of MCPS.

Which schools had SROs?

SROs were stationed in each public high school in Montgomery County. There was, at one point, funding for some SROs to be stationed in middle schools, but that plan never materialized, according to MCPS.

Who made the decision to remove SROs from schools last year?

Elrich removed funding for the SRO program when he proposed his Fiscal Year 2022 budget, effectively ending the program.

The County Council at the time was considering two competing bills regarding SROs, but neither made it to a vote.

One bill, sponsored by Hans Riemer and Will Jawando, would have banned police from being stationed in schools. The other, sponsored by Craig Rice and Sidney Katz, would have allowed SROs to be stationed in schools at the request of the MCPS superintendent.

Why did Elrich make that decision?

In the summer of 2020, after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in a case that shocked and divided the country, there were calls for racial justice locally and across the United States. Protesters took to the streets, decrying police violence against Black people and other marginalized groups. They often called for police reform and for police to be removed from schools.

Locally, data emerged that showed Black children accounted for nearly half of the arrests of MCPS students between 2016 and 2019, even though they were about one-fifth of the district’s enrollment. This was seen as evidence of racial inequity in policing.

Many Montgomery County residents pushed for the removal of SROs, citing the data and other research that suggests SROs are not effective in preventing violence. Others disagreed, arguing that it’s impossible to track how many incidents police prevented by being stationed in schools and that officers help keep students safer.

Who else was for SROs and who was opposed?

Many student groups and several community organizations, like the NAACP Parents Council and the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, were opposed to police being in schools.

Each of the county’s principals supported keeping the SRO program in place, according to MCPS. Many parents advocated for police to remain in schools.

School board members didn’t take public stances on the issue, aside from the student board member at the time, Nick Asante, who opposed the SRO program.

Why would students object to having police officers stationed in schools?

The students who objected to the SRO program — and to newly proposed changes to the community engagement officer program that would allow officers to have work stations in high schools — have said the presence of police officers can make Black, Hispanic and students in special education programs more susceptible to harsh discipline. They often point to student arrest data.

Some have said they were singled out by police in their schools for minor offenses that their white peers are not punished for as harshly.

They have said seeing armed officers in uniform can cause undue anxiety and fear.

All of this, they say, can create long-lasting, negative relationships with police.

How long were SROs in schools?

Montgomery County first began assigning police to schools in 2002, following the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. They were removed from MCPS schools at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.

What was the goal of the community engagement officer model?

The community engagement officer program replaced the SRO program, and was intended to fill a state requirement that schools have “adequate law enforcement coverage.” The police officers were largely removed from day-to-day operations within schools, and were instead assigned to geographic areas around schools. They would respond, as needed, to incidents, but school administrators were not allowed to call them directly.

Elrich has said that model was intended to create a balance between the need for law enforcement and the need to address the inequities in arrests and discipline. The idea, too, was to shift the focus to preventative, rather than punitive, measures and increase mental health resources for students.

MCPS has been slow to hire additional social workers, though, and in a recent interview with Bethesda Beat, Elrich said that if he had known it would have taken such a long time to fill those positions, he would have talked more about an “interim” plan.

What has happened since SROs were removed?

School district and police department leaders have acknowledged an increase in “serious incidents” at county schools this academic year, including the first school shooting in MCPS history in January at Col. Zadok Magruder High School.

For the 2019-20 school year, there were 255 “serious incidents.”

In 2020-21, the number dropped to 42. For the current school year, until Jan. 20, there were 302 “serious incidents.”

Data for the 2019-20 school year includes the fact that MCPS — along with school systems across Maryland — closed its classrooms, beginning on March 16, 2020. Schools remained closed for the remainder of that year. The school resource officer program was used then.

The majority of the 2020-21 school year was conducted virtually. Data provided for the current school year only included incidents up to Jan. 20, before the Magruder shooting.

Sex offenses were up during this school year, with 97 calls, versus 33 calls in 2019-20. Assaults — aggravated and simple — were down, from 142 calls in 2019-20 to 105 calls in 2021-22.

There were 20 calls for robberies from 2019-20, and seven calls for robberies in the 2021-22 school year. Calls for weapon offenses are up this year, from 46 in the 2019-20 school year to 66 in 2021-22.

What changes are being proposed now?

Following the shooting at Magruder High, which left one student with serious injuries, MCPS Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight pledged a “comprehensive review” of school safety.

The review included MCPS’ relationship with police. McKnight and county leaders said, however, a return to the old SRO model would not be effective.

In the weeks that followed, MCPS proposed changes to the community engagement officer program, which brings police back into school buildings, albeit in a limited way.

The officers are expected to have work stations in school buildings, but not spend their entire work days there. School administrators could contact them directly under the proposed changes.

There also would be a significant increase in training, MCPS leaders have said, and they would be more involved in “community-building” events, like presentations to classes.

The officers are not allowed to be involved in disciplinary matters, and can only called for serious incidents that school leaders cannot handle.

Staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed to this story.

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