The trouble started after one second-grader gave another some of the play money she had brought to her suburban Maryland school. The classmate tried to use it — a mock $100 bill — for lunch in the cafeteria, and before long, school security was involved. Then the Prince George’s County police were called.
Then, the U.S. Secret Service.
“They treated it like a counterfeit scheme,” said Tamara McKinney, grandmother of the girl, then 7 years old, who brought in the bills, which were realistic but clearly marked “fashion prop money,” “copy money” and “the copy money shop of XDOWMO.”
The girls were not led away in handcuffs or suspended, but McKinney and others see the February episode as evidence of a broader problem in Maryland’s second-largest school system: Student missteps are too often handled harshly or criminalized.
“It’s really shocking to think of a 7-year-old being targeted that way for something that is really playful behavior,” said Cara McClellan, an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has conferred with the family.
The incident in Prince George’s County — and a similar one more recently in neighboring Montgomery County — comes against a backdrop of national concern about school discipline and its disproportionate effect on students of color. School leaders in the two counties acknowledge the play-money incidents should have been handled differently, as advocates call for broader change.
The two cases may especially stand out in Maryland, which attracted national attention in 2014 for sweeping changes in discipline policies that were meant to keep students in school, end racial disparities and take a more rehabilitative approach.
This year, state officials began taking another look at the issue, with a task force expected to report to the Maryland State Board of Education this summer.
Nationally, black students, boys and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended and expelled, according to a federal report last year. Data on arrests at school show similar disparities, said researcher Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California at Los Angeles.
In Maryland, police involvement at elementary schools has also become a flash point in Montgomery County, where an incident involving play money led to a call to law enforcement on May 14.
In that case, a 10-year-old with learning disabilities shared mock $100 bills with friends on his school bus, and later a bus driver found a stray bill. The driver told a supervisor, and police were summoned; the child was identified through a bus camera video recording, authorities say.
Soon, a county police officer was at the boy’s elementary school, questioning him. The Secret Service — which deals with reports of counterfeit money — was notified.
“Outrageous,” the boy’s mother, Tiffany Kelly, wrote in an online petition, asking why a call was made to law enforcement, rather than “a call to mom.”
In an interview, Kelly was incredulous about the decision to contact police about her son, Sadiq. She said the money was purchased online for fun, and it was marked with large pink Chinese characters and dotted lines to indicate it was not real.
If concerns arose, she asked, why not ask a counselor to speak to her fourth-grader? Like many African American mothers, she said, she worries that contact with law enforcement could go wrong and place her son in jeopardy.
She was not called about the questioning until after it ended, when an officer phoned her, she said. Her son’s Montgomery County school, which she declined to name, did not call for a week, she said.
“We need to stop calling police on children in public schools,” she said, adding that harsh school responses are a broader problem. “There are disparities in how minority children are disciplined. It needs to be fair and equitable, and we know that’s not happening.”
School system officials in Montgomery County said they agree that police should not have been called, have apologized to Kelly and are reviewing their procedures. Race was not a factor in the school system’s response, they said.
“There were some clear missteps on our part, and we are working with staff in the various departments that were involved to ensure the process is clear moving forward and that incidents like this do not happen again,” schools spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said.
When police seek to interview a student, parents should be notified as promptly as possible, Onijala said. “We are learning from that mistake and want to ensure it doesn’t happen again in any of our schools,” she said.
School officials have invited Kelly to meet Tuesday to discuss the matter, Kelly said.
Police in Montgomery County investigated because they were called to do so, said Capt. Tom Jordan, a police spokesman, who described the questioning of the fourth-grader as “a casual conversation” with the principal present. There was no arrest or interrogation, he said. “We spoke with the student and our conversation with the student dispelled any thought there was wrongdoing,” he said.
Byron Johns, education chair of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP, called the incident unacceptable.
Johns said NAACP leaders have since met with schools officials, who agreed to update protocols, provide training for school system personnel and work with police to ensure a common understanding of law enforcement’s role in schools.
“There is psychological harm when you put a 10-year-old and a parent in that situation,” he said. “And for a kid who might be older or more anxious or argumentative about being falsely accused, it could escalate and become a dangerous interaction with police, as we have seen with a number of traffic stops around the country.”
In Prince George’s County, school system officials said police got involved at Catherine T. Reed Elementary School in Lanham — where the second-graders had the play money — because of the way administrators reported the incident to school security offices: They called the money “counterfeit.” Security personnel called police.
Jennifer Donelan, a county police spokeswoman, said police investigated and notified the Secret Service, as is protocol with possible counterfeit money. But the children were not arrested or questioned.
Monica Goldson, recently named chief executive of Prince George’s schools after nearly a year as interim leader, said the school system would do better in the future.
“Involving law enforcement was not the appropriate response,” she said. “Moving forward, I expect that better communication between schools and central office will ensure this type of situation from happening again.”
The Prince George’s case comes to light as the system’s broader disciplinary practices have faced criticism.
In a seven-page letter in March, advocates pointed out that more than 8,000 county students were suspended or expelled in the 2017-2018 school year, more than in any other Maryland school system. Students of color and students with disabilities were disproportionately affected, said the letter, signed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and several other legal advocacy groups, including the Public Justice Center, Disability Rights Maryland and the National Center for Youth Law.
The groups said that while black students account for 58 percent of enrollment in the county, they represent 78 percent of students removed from school. Students with disabilities account for 11 percent of enrollment but 24 percent of students suspended or expelled.
“Although Black students do not misbehave more often than white students, Black students are more often disciplined and bear the brunt of harsh exclusionary punishment,” the letter said.
The groups sought immediate changes: to improve staff training, strengthen supports for students with disabilities, track reforms, and expand “restorative justice” practices to help students learn from mistakes and correct harm done.
They noted Prince George’s suspends far more students than Montgomery County, which is larger, and said research shows suspensions do not improve student behavior or school climate. Harsh punishment contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline and puts students at greater risk of being held back a grade and dropping out, they argued.
“What’s clear to me is zero tolerance is alive and well in Prince George’s County schools,” said Nabanita “Neeta” Pal, an assistant public defender in Prince George’s.
Pal said too many students are suspended for minor offenses such as disrespect and disruption, and too often police are involved in ordinary disciplinary matters. “We see everyday adolescent behavior criminalized,” she said.
The letter from the five organizations notes that more than 350 children in prekindergarten through second grade were removed from school in 2017-2018 and alleges that students with disabilities have failed to get required support and been suspended.
Megan Berger, an attorney for Disability Rights Maryland, said some are suspended repeatedly. “It’s just very overwhelming and anxiety-producing for some kids,” she said. “They fall behind, they get discouraged, and they don’t want to go back.”
The letter also alleges that school administrators too often rely on police officers and security assistants for discipline, increasing the chances of student arrest and contact with the juvenile justice system.
Prince George’s officials said they have already begun to tackle issues highlighted by advocates. They met with the organizations in May.
The school board recently voted to create a work group focused on the school-to-prison pipeline.
“We have begun to make some changes and some strides,” Goldson said. “But we do acknowledge there is work that needs to be done.”
Goldson, who made school discipline the focus of an opinion piece she wrote for The Washington Post this year, pointed to several efforts in the works, including plans to launch an arrest diversion program with the state’s attorney’s office; the system has also added “crisis-intervention” teachers at 32 schools who support suspended students and train educators in de-escalation strategies.
Gwendolyn Mason, the school system’s chief of special education and student services, said the suspension rate for students with disabilities has dipped since 2016-2017, a trend she expects to continue when data is finalized for the school year that ended in June.
Suspensions for children in second grade and younger have declined, she said, and the school system will continue to do training and monitoring to move away from the practice, which is largely prohibited by state law.
Advocates sent a follow-up letter to school officials this week, saying that the school system’s efforts do not fix the problems they cited. They called for hiring an outside expert to help school officials lay out a plan for reform.
School officials in turn said they “remain committed to learning environments and discipline policies that meet children’s holistic needs.”
As discipline draws more attention, concerns are mixed. Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, warned against allowing high-profile incidents to create pressure for leniency in schools. That, he asserted, would “ultimately lead to an untold number of incidents wherein disruptive or violent behavior goes unchecked.”
But the push for action was welcomed by the family of the Prince George’s second-grader with the play money.
Aja Spruiell, the child’s mother, said the bills came from the girl’s older brothers, who ordered them online and were using them in a video project. Spruiell said she tried not to ask her daughter too much about the appearance of police, not wanting to scare her.
McKinney, the girl’s grandmother, has raised the issue publicly, saying excessive discipline puts students at risk of juvenile justice involvement.
“It could have been a teachable moment,” she said of the second-graders’ experience. She noted that her grandson has been repeatedly suspended from middle school, often for minor infractions she says could have been handled differently.
“We’re asking for them to stop this,” she said. “There are so many other ways to resolve childish behavior.”