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Montgomery County finalizes deal to bring police back into schools

Police investigate after a student was reported injured in January at Magruder High School in Montgomery County. (Freddy Kunkle/TWP)
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Montgomery County’s school district and police department privately signed an agreement that would bring law enforcement back into schools effective last week, but they informed the public and county council of the finalized contract Tuesday.

The school system pulled school resource officers out of school buildings last year, later creating a community engagement officer program in which officers patrolled areas around schools but were not stationed inside.

But some families have pushed for a stronger police presence after a string of safety issues — including a shooting at Magruder High School in Rockville that left one student critically injured. Opponents argue the school system should focus on bringing in more social workers, counselors and other resources focused on student wellness, instead of turning to law enforcement.

The contract — presented by Superintendent Monifa B. McKnight, Police Chief Marcus Jones and other school administrators — delineates when the community engagement officers would take the lead on handling serious incidents and when situations would be under school administrators’ purview. The agreement also stipulates an office in schools for police but notes they will not be permanently stationed there.

McKnight told council members the school system is taking an approach that would simultaneously prioritize safety and student wellness. Under the agreement, officers would go through at least 40 hours of training that includes a focus on school policies, conflict resolution and threat assessments. The district has also hired 28 of the 50 social workers it pledged to employ last year, she said.

“We have some serious issues that may have come on more strongly because of the pandemic,” she said. “There is a wellness issue plaguing the entire nation right now — and we’re included in that.”

Montgomery leaders privately negotiate bringing police back to schools

Council member Craig Rice (D-District 2), who chairs the education and culture committee, said that the agreement was an imperfect compromise but that it did its due diligence to include varying perspectives on the solution.

Some council members questioned the late notice about the agreement and whether there was enough community input. A news release about the agreement between the school system and police department was released Tuesday afternoon, but the agreement was signed April 19.

“I hope you understand when we hear widespread comments like that from the public, it in my view erodes trust in the transparency in the whole Montgomery County government,” said council member Tom Hucker (D-District 5), citing social media posts from reporters about the lag before the public was notified.

James D’Andrea, the superintendent’s chief of staff, said participants from the school system and police department pressed for a hard date to begin the agreement instead of an implementation process. The school system began sending out messages to the school community in mid-March about upcoming changes in its relationship with law enforcement, he continued.

County council member Will Jawando (D-At Large), who has consistently advocated for the removal of police from schools, argued that the school system hasn’t let other mental health investments take effect. Rather, it has focused on “a desire to respond to a horrible tragedy of interpersonal conflict between two students,” he said, pointing to the incident at Magruder.

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

“The idea that this program is going to stop that, I think I don’t agree with,” he said. He asked why the school system wasn’t making more investments in people who are trained in conflict resolution and youth development, but is instead focusing on creating a training for police officers to do that.

McKnight said “it’s not an either or.” The training would be a conduit to help tackle some of the systemic issues surrounding the relationship between students and police. She promised the school system would host monthly meetings to review data that would evaluate how the law enforcement presence was impacting students.