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A county pulled police from schools six months ago. Now it wants to bring them back.

Montgomery County students and community activists gather Feb. 24 in Rockville, Md., to protest a proposal to bring police back into county school buildings. (Young People for Progress)
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Less than six months after Maryland’s largest jurisdiction pulled police out of its public schools, officials are weighing a plan that would bring officers back into school buildings, reviving a testy debate in the liberal county over school security and student well-being.

Under the new plan, which Montgomery County Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight’s administration introduced at a meeting last month, police officers would be given “work stations” in county high schools, instead of being called in only during emergencies as is currently the case. They would wear plain clothes instead of police uniforms to make them appear more approachable. And they would handle investigations into specific types of criminal activity, such as sexual assault and incidents in which guns are used, but stay out of other disciplinary issues like possession of marijuana, school administrators said.

The proposal, which came weeks after a school shooting in Montgomery County, has been met with relief from some parents who say that a stronger police presence will help to keep their children safer on campuses amid an uptick in violence. More students have brought weapons into schools in the past academic year, according to county data. And reports of verbal and physical attacks have nearly doubled since 2019.

But student and community activists who pushed to remove school resource officers from schools last year say there are ways to improve security without turning to law enforcement. They say bringing police back into schools would negatively affect students of color and students with disabilities, who are disproportionately targeted by police on campus. According to state data, Black students accounted for nearly half of all arrests made in Montgomery schools from 2016 to 2019, despite making up only a fifth of the student body.

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“Students have been clear on what we want, which is no police in schools,” said Amari Mbongwo, 18, a senior at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Md., and an activist with the group Young People for Progress, “but it seems [officials] are choosing after all this time to ignore the people with the most stake in this issue.”

School administrators said they wanted to review safety practices given the increase in violence. National staffing shortages prevented other options — like using security staff employed by the school — from being a possibility. But the existing program, which has groups of police called “community engagement officers” patrol the areas around schools, was already in place.

By expanding that program, the school system would not be “encouraging or offering the policing of students in any way, shape or form,” Ruschelle Reuben, the district’s chief of teaching, learning and schools, said at a meeting last week.

Across the nation, school systems have been grappling with how to balance mounting concerns over security with demands from activists to address what they call the over-policing of underrepresented students.

D.C. has kept a school police program in place even though a city-council-appointed Police Reform Commission recommended that officers be removed from campuses. In Northern Virginia, Alexandria City Council members voted in October to reinstate its School Resource Officer program, reversing a decision it made five months before.

Maryland passed sweeping laws to change police discipline. Now it’s stumbling on implementation, activists say.

Last year, Montgomery County became the first jurisdiction in Maryland to pull police from schools when Marc Elrich (D), the county’s top official, announced as part of his annual budget proposal that he would be redeploying school resource officers to other roles, effectively ending the program. He and several members of the all-Democratic county council championed the removal of police from schools last year, intensifying their advocacy on the issue after video emerged of county police in 2020 handcuffing and berating a Black 5-year-old.

Elrich, who oversees the police department, asserted at the time that while there would be officers in the neighborhoods around school clusters, “they’re not going to be parked on the parking lot, and they won’t be on the grounds.”

He appeared to back away from this commitment in a news conference two weeks ago where he said he supports McKnight’s proposal to bring police back into schools. “This is first and foremost a school question,” he said. “They’re the ones who have to run the schools.”

Elrich did not respond directly to questions about clarifying his position this week, saying only that he planned to review the final agreement between the school system and the police department.

Kyson Taylor, 17, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School and a lead organizer for the group MoCo Against Brutality, said many student activists feel frustrated by what they see as the recent about-face from elected officials on the issue.

“My message to [Elrich] is: You took agency last year to do this, to remove these positions from the budget. Where is that now? And what has changed?” he said.

Taylor co-chairs a work group that was convened by lawmakers last year to study the issue of student safety and well-being, and the group concluded in a report released in October that the county should decrease police presence in schools. Taylor and other student activists say they believe that there are ways to tackle school violence without turning to police, such as investing in more mental health resources for students.

The school system pledged last year to hire 50 social workers, but as of Wednesday, 17 had been hired. More are expected this school year, officials said.

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“I’m at a point where I’m not sure exactly what we can do,” Taylor said. “We’ve presented the data; we’ve done the protests; we’ve testified at every possible hearing. … After all that, they’re literally going back to the same exact program that we’ve been fighting against.”

Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, a co-founder of the activist group Racial Justice Now and parent of a second- and ninth-grader in the school system, agreed. “It just seems like MCPS caved too quickly, and despite the fact that they haven’t done what they needed to do around increasing the mental health support in the schools,” she said.

Other parents, however, say McKnight’s proposal doesn’t go far enough to boost school safety given a recent shooting at Magruder High School that left one student critically injured. The student charged in the shooting was armed with a “ghost gun” that he had assembled at home, police said.

“What we want is the re-administration of the SRO program with improvements,” said Eric Delgado, a Montgomery father of two who advocated against the removal of police officers last year. He recently transferred his seventh-grade daughter from a county school to a private Catholic school in part because of concerns for her safety, he said.

“I’m wondering why it has to be either-or when it should be both-and,” Delgado said. “The county has the means to do both — police and mental health resources.”

Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones said he has always believed in the merit of the county’s SRO program and also supports McKnight’s new plan to bring police back into schools. Having a “highly visible” police presence can help to deter crime on campus, he said.

McKnight’s proposal isn’t subject to a vote by the board of education or county council. Rather, the final plan will be decided between school administrators and the police department, who were still working out the details late this week. School officials have said they plan to meet with more community members and school principals before an agreement is completed.

Council President Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large) said in a news briefing Monday that he “trusts the leadership” of McKnight and other board of education members on the issue of school safety and that “the council will not intervene in individual school policies.”

But council member Will Jawando (D-At Large) said there are still ways lawmakers can exert their influence on the school system. Along with council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), Jawando introduced legislation in 2020 that would bar police from being stationed in schools. He halted the bill when Elrich removed the SRO positions from his budget last spring, but Jawando said he’s prepared to revive it if it seems like the only way to stop police from returning to school buildings.

“My position has not changed,” said Jawando, who has been a vocal advocate for dramatic police changes in Montgomery. He added that he isn’t surprised that the debate over police in schools has returned so quickly, given the recent uptick in crime, but that he hopes officials avoid the “knee-jerk reaction” of returning to old systems such as the SRO program.

“Change is hard,” Jawando said. “We have to stay the course.”

Where the 2022 candidates for Montgomery County Executive stand on the issue of police in schools:

  • Incumbent Marc Elrich: Elrich said in a news conference on Feb. 16 that he does not want to interfere in changes to school security and is “very supportive of having the school system work this out.” Elrich said on multiple occasions last year that the county would no longer have police in schools; in an email exchange this week, he did not address questions asking whether his position had changed.
  • Businessman David Blair: Blair said he “fully supports” McKnight’s proposal to bring police back into school buildings. “What the superintendent has proposed seems like a very good modification to what we have in place,” Blair said, adding that he personally felt safer dropping his children off at school when he knew that there were officers on campus. He said he thinks there is a way for students to feel both “safe and respected” by police in their school buildings.
  • Council member Hans Riemer (At-Large): Riemer said that he does not support having police in schools and that increasing the number of trained security personnel and counseling staff will more effectively improve school safety. “We have a shortage of police officers on community beats where we have serious crime issues,” Riemer added. “We need to put our police resources where they can have the biggest impact on safety.”
  • Council member Tom Hucker (District 5): Hucker said that he has not yet reviewed McKnight’s proposal but that the county should prioritize adding mental health resources and hiring more security guards before bringing police back into schools. He added that he might support having police at some schools but not others.
  • Political newcomer Devin Battley: Battley said he would rather have trained security guards to beef up school security instead of police, though he is not opposed to having police in schools. He recognized that a police presence could be distressing to some students, he said, but “would still rather they were well protected.”