For nearly 15 years — the span of his political career — Craig Rice was a champion of police in public schools.
“People who are trying to wedge a divide between police and people of color — stop it,” he said at a council meeting in March 2020. “We need them just as much as White people do. And that’s the reality.”
Rice, who is Black, developed his trust in law enforcement in the 1990s, after an aunt and cousin of his were killed in a horrific triple homicide five doors away from his childhood home. He hadn’t budged when data showed that Black and Latino students as well as those with disabilities were arrested in disproportionately high numbers. He appeared unwavering after the death of George Floyd sparked widespread protests against police misconduct, thrusting the slogan “police-free schools” into communities across the country — including his own.
Then, on Monday, Rice made an announcement.
“In talking with various stakeholders, especially our students, I’ve evolved on the issue of police in our schools,” he said at a news conference with the council’s only other Black lawmaker, Will Jawando (D-At Large), who has led the charge to eliminate the school officer program in the county of 1 million.
“I no longer feel like the daily presence of police in our schools in an enforcement capacity fosters a safe environment,” Rice said. “Nor do I find it necessary.”
Jawando said he and Rice were launching a task force on addressing the mental and emotional needs of students through counselors or social workers. The county will ensure that the schools are adequately protected in case of emergencies, he added.
Critics and supporters of the school-officer program alike were floored.
The online group chats where student activists had been organizing campaigns against the program “blew up” even before Rice finished speaking, said Lauren Payne, 18, the president of the group Young People for Progress. The teenagers were elated — and shocked, she said. “He was the last one we thought would switch on the issue.”
As a joint letter from Rice and Jawando circulated among parent-teacher associations, supporters of the program reeled.
“I didn’t even know what to say other than sheer and utter disappointment,” said Eric Delgado, a father of two Montgomery students.
“I can’t reconcile this with his avid support of the program. … It just doesn’t make sense to me,” said Susan Burkinshaw, a former PTA leader who had worked with Rice to put more police officers in county schools. “Parents who are staunch advocates are devastated. Many are disgusted.”
Rice’s about-face hadn’t come easily.
The councilor, who was born and raised in Silver Spring, Md., experienced a dramatic change in his view of the police in 1996, when an aunt and cousin of his, Mildred and Trevor Horn, were murdered in their home, along with Trevor’s nurse, Janice Saunders. Rice, then 21, flew home from the University of Illinois to be with his family. Rice’s mother, Vivian E. Rice, had found the bodies.
For days, Rice recalled, he and his family slept together in the living room, unsure of who had killed their relatives or whether the killer would come back for anyone else. Police eventually arrested Lawrence T. Horn, Mildred’s ex-husband, who was convicted of first-degree murder for hiring a Detroit hit man to kill his ex-wife and son. Throughout the ordeal, Rice said, knowing that officers were actively working on the case “brought us a sense of comfort.”
When Rice went back to school, transferring first to Howard University and then to the University of Maryland, he noticed that he and his Black friends were pulled over by police more frequently than his White peers. But he remembered the officers who supported his family after the murders, and he continued to believe that Montgomery police were “a good bunch, spoiled by a few bad apples.”
His first post in local politics was as an appointee on Montgomery County’s Victim Services Advisory Board. Once he arrived in the Maryland legislature, the state’s school officer program seemed like a natural cause. Later, he continued to speak up for the program.
“The police are not our enemy,” he said, defending the program as a council member in February 2020. “Why are people so fearful of these officers that are trying to protect our kids?”
Floyd’s death three months later was a turning point.
In public, Rice continued to advocate for the program, even writing legislation to counter Jawando’s effort to bar police officers from schools. In private, however, he spoke to friends and constituents, who shared one story after another of being mistreated by police, he said.
He sparred with his daughter Caelyn, 15, who said she didn’t understand how he could support the police when social media teemed with evidence of officers targeting Black Americans. And he listened to his mother, now 78, who told him that the many videos of police brutality reminded her of growing up in rural South Carolina, where, in the 1960s, it had been routine for men in uniform to act with impunity.
“I started to realize what our kids were seeing each and every day,” Rice said in an interview. “It’s the Pentagon officer. The state trooper. The county police officer,” he added, citing examples of shootings in Maryland last year and this year by police. “It’s not one thing, and it’s not as though it’s just one place. It’s pervasive, and that’s why it feels like the norm. So for us to then push and say, ‘Well, we’re going to have this officer in the hallways, and if you’re scared, you’re just going to have to suck it up’ — that’s not fair. It’s not respectful.”
The mentorship role that he had seen officers perform at schools could be taken over by other adults, Rice reasoned.
Nick Asante, an 18-year-old who represents students on the Montgomery County Board of Education, says he believes Rice when he says he was moved by the dozens of testimonies from Black and Latino students.
Other activists are more cynical.
“Ungenerously, he may be blowing with the political winds,” said Katie Stauss, a member of the group Silver Spring Justice Coalition.
Several weeks before Rice’s announcement, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) proposed a reorganization of the county police department that would get rid of the school officer program even if Jawando’s bill to eliminate it did not pass.
“The pieces were already lined up,” said council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), who co-authored Jawando’s bill. “What was left to hang onto?”
Burkinshaw, the former PTA leader, said she hadn’t paid much attention to the issue since her daughter graduated from a county public school two years ago. She became involved again to support Rice’s bill to continue the program, which he now says he will put on pause as he works with Jawando.
Burkinshaw said she feels like she was “hung out to dry.”
“Do we let students write curriculum?” she said, reflecting on his contention that he was convinced by the experiences of young people. “Do we let students tell us what they should study?”
“[Rice] was at a crossroads,” said Delgado, the other county parent. “And I feel like he made a deal with the devil.”
Sitting in his Rockville office, decorated with pictures of him with police chiefs and politicians, Rice said it wasn’t that he had swung from one extreme to the other.
As a Black man, he said, his relationship with police had always been fraught. He said he no longer thinks police should be in schools but still believes that the county’s police department is one of the best in the country. He doesn’t agree with “defund the police,” he said, but thinks officers need to be much more severely disciplined for misconduct.
“It’s hard to say clearly because it’s — it’s confusing,” he said, wringing his hands. Some residents say they want more police, he noted, and some say they want fewer.
Rice jumped on the phone late Tuesday night when he heard that a 23-year-old Black man in the county had been killed in a drive-by shooting. When he woke the next morning, he read that a White 16-year-old with a replica gun had been fatally shot by a Maryland state trooper several counties away.
“How do you balance the two?” Rice said, posing a question he said had gnawed at him for years. “You want to do the right thing. But how do you balance the two?”