Will Police Remain a Force in Montgomery County Schools?

Registration already full for public hearing on School Resource Officers program Thursday, Feb. 4, at 7:30 p.m.

Council legislation would eliminate school resource officers from public schools; Jawando and Riemer say the program is part of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Let’s repeat the known facts: 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.

By the time students reach high schools, where the police department’s school resource officers are employed as a daily presence in the lives of students, the data shows more disparity. During the 2018-2019 school year, Black students were arrested 73 times and Hispanic students 55 times of the 163 student arrests that school year, compared to 32 White students, and 2 Asian students, according to MCPS data. In the 2019-2020 school year, shortened by the pandemic, Black students and HIspanic students accounted for 62 (34 Black students and 28 Hispanic students) of the 71 arrests.

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

More facts of what that leads to: Jawando said 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.

“It gets worse as you go down the system,” said Jawando.

The County Council has scheduled a public hearing on Feb. 4, 2020, in the evening at 7:30 p.m. on Zoom, to allow for all the people who want to comment on the SRO program.

“It’s not only that Black and Brown students are likely to be arrested, it’s once they are arrested, the outcomes are different,” said Riemer.

“The program was created with the best of intentions,” Jawando said, but, “we know disproportionate harm is happening.”

“That’s the data we have,” he said.

GIVE THE SCHOOL SYSTEM the chance to come up with their recommendations, said councilmember Craig Rice (District 2), at the introduction of Jawando’s bill in November.

“I was surprised to see this legislation being issued right now because the Board of Education has not yet issued its report,” said Councilmember Nancy Navarro (District 4), who served on the Montgomery County Board of Education before being elected to County Council. Navarro said it was “paternalistic” for Jawando and Riemer to propose legislation before the Board of Education, seven women plus the male student member of the board, has acted.

“For us to have legislation before they can even give their opinion,” said Sidney Katz (District 3), Council President at the time, “is unfortunate.”

Gabe Albornoz (at-large, now Council vice president) said he’s open to change, but felt the legislation was “somewhat premature.”

Rice said he’s “anxious to hear what our school system says.”

The Board of Education said it would make its recommendation on Jan. 12, at a regular scheduled meeting, and the Council moved the originally scheduled public hearing from January to February.

Jawando, at the time, said, “I do not expect a report [in January], that’s not the role they are taking.”

LAST WEEK, the Board of Education said they expect to make a recommendation in May; that more vetting of the SRO program and restorative justice initiatives is needed, plus they want to hold meetings in the community.

All high school principals in the county have supported the continuation of the school resource officer program, yet Superintendent Jack Smith acknowledged the problem.

“It’s absolutely undeniable that different members of the community and different communities in Montgomery County, in the state, and in the nation, have had a different experience with law enforcement over time. It is undeniable,” said Smith. “It is absolutely true that a disparity has and continues to exist for our students of color and especially our African American students.”

Student School Board member Nick Asante says the feedback from students who have had experience with the SRO program is critical.

He asked in the Fall for data on the breakdown of incidents and arrests and demographics in specific schools and said part of the disproportionate treatment comes from school culture and is incited within the culture of administrative teams.

“What is it that may be fueling a culture that we need to disrupt?” said Monifa McKnight, Deputy Superintendent.

But the school system was let down by the way data has been collected.

“Whatever changes we make to school safety and security, one of the things we should do is build a data infrastructure that makes sure we can always answer the questions,” said Smith.

That change can be done immediately, Smith said.

For the future, School Board member Lynne Harris (at-large) said the school system needs to “better help students throughout their journey with us.”

She wants to get to a system that looks at a student and doesn’t say, “‘What’s wrong with you?’ But looks at a student and says, ‘What happened and how can we help you?’”

School Board Member Shebra Evans (District 4) said she’s glad the conversation is happening. “It’s very clear we need to do things differently.”

Hana O’Looney, student, Richard Montgomery, Montgomery County Regional Student Government Association: "Study after study has shown the disproportionate effect this program has had on the criminalization of Black, brown and disabled students despite the fact that no national or Maryland study has found that an increase in police presence decreases school violence."

Edward Owusu, Clarksburg High School principal: "School resource officers are needed in MCPS high schools. As a principal, I can recall many instances where SROs have reached out on weekday morning or evening, or a weekend, with information that would affect operations or safety of the school the following day, even sometimes in the following hour."

Robert Wilcox, Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations: "The data shows deep disproportionality but we haven’t disaggregated that by school."

Willie Parker-Loan, Assistant, Chief of Police, MCPD: "SROs are an immediate face-to-face resource that principals can and do rely upon."

Lynne Harris, School Board Member, At-large: "We have to look very very closely at the reality of the impacts of everything that we do in the school system on our students of color."

Patricia O’Neill, School Board Member, District 3: "We need accurate data as a means of accountability."

Councilmember Hans Riemer, At-large: "What we are doing today is relying too much on policing. ...Let’s make sure that we do not have a school-to-prison pipeline in Montgomery County."'

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