Police will be posted in all 25 Montgomery County high schools next fall as county leaders bolstered the schools’ security force in a final budget approved last week.
The budget for the year that begins July 1 includes 10 new school resource officers (SROs), who will join 12 school police officers in place and three supported by the cities of Rockville and Gaithersburg and the county sheriff’s department.
The addition of the officers, expected to start when the next school year begins, goes a long way toward restoring a program that was slashed amid recession-driven budget cuts in recent years.
“It’s been a long time since we had an SRO in every high school,” said Montgomery County Council President Craig Rice (D-Upcounty). “I think we have a great framework for a strong program.”
Montgomery’s approach to school-based officers has shifted since the program was cut, officials say. Officers now get specialized training for working in school environments, and school-police relationships are spelled out in more detail, with more communication.
At the time of the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — which brought a sharp focus to questions of school security nationally — Montgomery had six official police positions in its budget, down from 32 positions in the 2003-04 school year.
In Virginia, Fairfax County, with 53 SROs, and Loudoun County, with 27, assign an officer to each middle school and high school. Neighboring Prince George’s County has 22 county and municipal officers in the schools. Most districts also rely on non-uniformed security personnel.
“This is a pretty significant increase,” said Michael A. Durso (5th District), a school board member and retired school principal who has supported reviving the program and sees it as both prevention and security. Officers might hear of a possible fight or a party, and intercede, help a family in a crisis, work a football game or speak in a law class, he said.
“Every officer I’ve worked with has made a difference in the school,” Durso said. “There’s just so many different things a good SRO can do that can be helpful that don’t necessarily show up on a police report.”
During the budget cycle that followed Sandy Hook, Montgomery increased its SRO staffing to 12, from six. It also had other arrangements with county and municipal police that brought additional officers onto campuses.
Nationally, civil rights advocates say a police presence in schools often leads to a spike in law enforcement referrals and arrests on campus for misconduct that would typically be handled by a principal. Montgomery officials say their program will not result in the criminalizing of minor school misbehavior.
With a focus on prevention and intervention, “I think it’s going to mean more compassion for kids,” Rice said. “These officers are going to get to know these kids. It’s community policing in our schools.”
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr has supported the idea, saying at a recent school board meeting that the school system had succeeded in reducing out-of-school suspensions and is working with police and prosecutors to keep schools safe and “make sure that our schools do not contribute to a school-to-prison pipeline.”
As of last summer, all school resource officers undergo a week of training that includes sessions on adolescent development, threat assessments, de-escalation practices, use of force and other topics.
Under a police-school memorandum created last year, the SRO selection process includes a formal interview, with the involvement of a high school principal.
“It’s not a job every officer can do for a number of reasons,” said Assistant Montgomery Police Chief Darryl McSwain, speaking at a recent council committee meeting on the issue.
For fiscal 2015, the 10 new positions are expected to cost approximately $467,000, mostly for salaries and benefits. County officials say they anticipate looking into the possibility of expanding the program into middle schools in the future.
The county council of PTAs has passed resolutions supporting an SRO in all secondary schools, said Susan Burkinshaw, co-chairman of the group’s health and safety committee.
Burkinshaw called the restoration of the program “phenomenal” and said she was reminded about the need for officers during recent bomb threats — which turned out to be false alarms — at Montgomery high schools.
“What small town of 3,000 people doesn’t have an officer in it?” Burkinshaw asked. “To not have an officer on premises to help manage what is like a small city is ludicrous.”