New Visions for Public Schools in Montgomery County

Restorative justice practices offer hope to reduce racial disparities in school discipline.

“It’s not easy to do what my colleagues did today,” said Craig Rice, chair of the Montgomery County Council’s education committee, “which is to open themselves up.”

Rice, Nancy Navarro and Will Jawando will recommend that the full Council allocate $750,000 for Montgomery County Public Schools to continue their work on restorative justice.

“You see folks who are on this zoom who are crying,” said Rice. “And those are tears of happiness about the progress that we’ve made, but they are also tears of pain and suffering that many have experienced over their lifetimes.”

Jawando shared a personal experience with restorative justice. His daughter had her hand caught in a metal school door when a fellow student slammed a classroom door. “We had a restorative circle with him and his parents and we were all crying in the end,” said Jawando.

The process allowed both his daughter, the victim, and the student who caused her injury, to heal. The boy would likely have been suspended otherwise.

Suspensions increase the likelihood of students coming into contact with the juvenile justice system, said Ruschelle Reuben, Associate Superintendent of the Office of Student and Family Support and Engagement.

“It made me so happy that didn’t happen to this little Black boy and we were able to come to a solution,” said Jawando. “It’s urgent and I get emotional.”

“It is emotional, it’s life altering,” said Navarro.

Navarro shared a story of meeting a teacher trained in the practice, who talked about what some of his students had been through in their lives.

“When we see these beautiful faces [of students] in the morning, we have no idea about the type of trauma, the every-day trauma they face, the microaggressions and what that does to your spirit. That’s what we’re talking about,” said Navarro. “We’re talking about children’s spirits.”

Stories of successes with restorative justice spurred councilmembers to provide funding and to work on ways to expand the program throughout the school system.

Reuben said in their pilot programs at the elementary and middle school level, the number of referrals for restorative justice have gone down while restorative practices in the classroom have gone up.

“We’re called to be here in this moment to make significant changes, a paradigm shift, not just incremental changes,” said Navarro.

MCPS plans to use the $750,000 to provide restorative justice training to middle school administrators and staff, including 80 administrators (two at each middle school); 1,200 teachers (30 at each middle school); 80 security assistants (two at each middle school); and 75 district staff members (pupil personnel workers, parent community coordinators, school counselors and school psychologists).

“We’re creating a wrap around service in how we respond,” said Reuben.

“It excites me that this can improve the work in 40 middle schools,” said Jawando. “Get this deep embedded,” he said.

“The facts are clear, when you remove SROs you have less arrests and you remove disproportionality.”

UPDATE ON SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICERS

The Council’s Public Safety and Education committees scheduled joint worksessions March 18 to address two bills before the council; one, whether or not police officers should be permitted in schools full-time, and, two, if so, how to build positive law enforcement relationships within schools.

“There will be police in our community in some form, there needs to be positive relationships between those police officers and our children,” said Craig Rice. The challenge, he said, “is whether or not we are going to remove school resource officers or we are going to reimagine the program.” A public hearing on Rice’s bill, building positive law enforcement relationships in schools, is scheduled virtually for March 4, 2021, at 7:30 p.m.

Former councilmember Phil Andrews was the head of the council's public safety committee when the Columbine School tragedy happened in 2014. He testified on Feb. 4, giving voice to the reason all high school principals support school resource officers in schools.

SROs “helped stop several potential disasters” at Walter Johnson, Clarksburg and Einstein high schools in recent years, where students alerted SROs of peers bringing or threatening to bring weapons to school, said Andrews.

He called the SRO program “a prudent strategy to keep schools safe.”

“We need both SRO’s and more mental health services,” he said.

BUT 31 of 33 people who testified on Feb. 4, 2021, spoke in support of Will Jawando’s bill prohibiting school resources in public high schools. The record will remain open until Feb. 25, 2021, to allow for more input from the public.

“The facts are clear, when you remove SROs you have less arrests and you remove disproportionality,” said Jawando.

Black and Hispanic students are suspended twice as often as their white peers in elementary, middle and high schools. Special education students are suspended twice as much as all other students, according to data from Montgomery County Public Schools.

Students of color are four times as likely as their white peers to be arrested in school. While awaiting trial, they are 10 times as likely to be held by the Department of Juvenile Justice as their white peers. And they are nine times as likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.

At-large councilmembers Will Jawando and Hans Riemer introduced their bill last November that would eliminate school resource officers from public schools, calling the program a part of the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Board of Education is also working on the issue, and plans to meet with various stakeholders with recommendations coming in May.

County Executive Marc Elrich has proposed having officers with beats around the school community who check in with administration and at the schools once a day but aren’t a continuous presence within the schools.

Nancy Navarro said she also plans to introduce legislation in the near future. “Hopefully, we can marry all these efforts in a way that is positive ... a 21st-century public safety and a 21st-century response to disproportionality and racial equity and social justice.”

Restorative Justice ...

“is a social justice platform that allows students to actively engage and problem solve physical, psychological, social and disciplinary issues that affect their lives and the community at large; and take responsibility for their actions and work with those affected to restore the community and members who were harmed as a result of those actions.”

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