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Protector or threat? Across the Washington region, schools weigh police’s role on campus.

Fairfax County Police Officer Joe Plazi  patrols the hallways at West Springfield High School in 2012.
Fairfax County Police Officer Joe Plazi patrols the hallways at West Springfield High School in 2012. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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With a wave of protests turning the nation’s focus to racism and police violence, the largest school system in Maryland is rethinking whether uniformed officers should be based inside its public schools.

Officials in Montgomery County, in the suburbs of Washington, decided this week to do a detailed analysis of arrest data and the use of school-assigned police, called school resource officers (SROs), in the 166,000-student system.

Under a measure passed unanimously Thursday, the school board will decide in January whether to modify or scrap the program, following an interim report due in the fall and a recommendation from Superintendent Jack R. Smith.

The school system, which has 208 schools, employs a security staff of 224, while the county and municipalities provide SROs for its 25 high schools.

“We’ll pursue this vigorously and come back with lots of information,” Smith told the board.

Across the Washington region, the role of police has been reconsidered and debated, as the country has convulsed with anger and pain over the killing of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody as he lay handcuffed on the ground in Minneapolis.

All Montgomery high schools to have police on campus for new school year

A police presence in schools has often been a flash point. Some see law enforcement officers as an important layer of safety on campus, while others say students’ missteps are too often criminalized by police — and that students of color are over-arrested.

In Maryland’s Prince George’s County — with the largest black-majority school system in the country — the issue was debated for much of the week. Petitions circulated online. Opinions flared on social media.

Two school board members drew up proposals that would have ended the use of SROs. On Monday, a three-member majority on a Prince George’s school board committee voted to cancel its contracts for SROs and designate up to $5 million for additional mental health professionals and counselors and other supports.

But three days later, the full Prince George’s school board blocked the conversation altogether — tabling the issue until mid-September.

“I’m just shocked that we couldn’t even have a debate on the matter,” said school board member Raaheela Ahmed. “It’s our responsibility to have discussions on issues that affect our students.”

Board member David Murray said stifling the issue after weeks of public demonstrations was “shameful.”

“The whole point of protesting and marching is to compel your elected officials to take action and do something,” he said.

The money was fake. The police were real. It happened in an elementary school.

Prince George’s has 33 SROs, along with 215 security staff members, 70 of whom have arrest powers, a spokeswoman said. Only the SROs were at issue.

Several school board members said more community feedback was needed.

“The issue was tabled because the board felt that additional consideration of the issue was required and additional input from the community was necessary in order to make an informed decision,” Board Chairman Alvin Thornton said.

Asked why discussion was not permitted, Thornton said a conversation was already started in Prince George’s. “There’s a rich discussion in our community,” he said.

Board member Paul Monteiro, who also voted to table the matter, said more school system and police data were needed, along with more input from those affected. He said he had heard strong opposition to simply removing SROs without a more thoughtful approach.

Earlier in the week, Monica E. Goldson, chief executive of the school system, spoke out on the issue in an email and video, saying it was important to take time to consider the role and number of police officers as well as community-based alternatives.

“Before making drastic changes,” she said in the video, “we must first answer some very critical questions that I’ve been inundated with over the last 24 hours: If we eliminate school resource officers, who will protect my child from an active shooter? Will the role of the teacher and administrator change now that there’s no longer school security in our schools? And I am a student: Is my voice critical and important, because I like my school resource officer?”

The proposal would not have removed all security staff.

Fueled by protests, school districts across the country cut ties with police

County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) weighed in Thursday, saying that she believes “we cannot afford to withdraw a single resource from our students” — that they need police presence and mental health support, especially at a time when school shootings have filled headlines.

In Montgomery, student board member Nate Tinbite, a co-sponsor of the measure the board passed, said the toll on students of color is too much. “The time to end the criminalization of our children is now,” he said. As a black male, he said, he understands the experience personally.

“It’s hard to function understanding and knowing that a target is on your back — when you’re outside, when you’re in grocery stores, when you’re in malls and on the street, because of a societal impression of people of color,” he said.

The measure Montgomery passed requires the superintendent to come back with data on student arrests and report on the agreement that guides how police operate on campus. It also requires an examination of approaches used by similarly situated school systems that do not base SROs in school buildings. Comments will be sought from administrators, staff and others in the community, officials said.

School board member Patricia O’Neill said the public clamors for more police in schools after tragedies such as Columbine and Sandy Hook but it’s not the role of SROs to stand as armed guards; they are brought into schools under a model of community policing.

“Many of them are fine individuals; many of them have good relationships with students in their buildings. But just as in any field, some of them probably should not be working with teenagers,” she said. “I think it is worthwhile to examine how things are going, look at our data, because disproportionately, whether it’s local school discipline or arrests, I suspect it skews to more African American and Latino students.”

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Early this year, county lawmakers and advocates in Montgomery debated the broader issue of the police presence in schools, after Council member Craig Rice (D-District 2) and County Executive Marc Elrich (D) proposed expanding the SRO program — and were met with a swift public backlash.

This week, Elrich said in an interview he “was never a big fan of the SROs. I argued more than once that we should put counselors in school rather than using police.”

In both Montgomery and Prince George’s, SROs are paid for with county or municipal funds, not school system money.

In the District, the school system has a contract of more than $23 million with the city’s police department. That contract pays for more than 300 unarmed security guards. Separately, the school system employs 17 armed officers who have police powers, including the authority to arrest. The D.C. police budget also allocates 98 school resource officers who move among the city’s more than 200 public charter and traditional public school campuses.

Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who co-chairs the education committee, said he is considering introducing legislation that would divert money from the police contract and require the school system to use those funds on mental health services or other violence prevention strategies.

But Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee says it’s not that simple: School leaders ask him for more security, not less, he said, and SROs often build strong relationships with students. He said they are also critical to a school program that ensures students can safely commute to and from school.

Still, the push to remove police officers from schools is gaining traction among residents. Black Swan Academy — an after-school program that says it empowers students to become activists in their communities — has collected more than 1,500 signatures on a petition calling on city leaders to remove school resource officers from schools and invest more money in mental health and violence prevention services. The group also believes that the police department should not hold the contract placing security guards in schools. Instead, the group says, school leaders should decide who works on campuses.

“School is supposed to be a safe environment for us, yet it is a system ran like it holds criminals,” Myah Davis, a 15-year-old Eastern High student involved in the Black Swan Academy, said in a video calling for D.C. to amend its school police policies. “I believe this should change.”

Rachel Chason, Rebecca Tan and Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.

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