One immediate question for the council to decide is whether to allow a “2.0” approach to police in schools through the county executive’s proposed “community resource officer” program. This plan, formulated in the wake of growing criticism of school-based police officers, moves 23 police officers out of school buildings and into patrols that focus on places where students congregate.
The problems with this approach are that police would continue to be a regular presence in the schools and school officials would continue relying on police to address situations that could instead be handled by properly trained school staff.
As a result of unnecessarily relying on police officers, we are needlessly criminalizing youth behavior. We must acknowledge the long history of young Black and Brown boys receiving harsher responses from adults than their White peers. The arrest data in Montgomery County show a lopsided disproportionality.
This 2.0 idea is not a good one. It would waste taxpayer funds on police work that has negligible public safety value but continues to make many students feel unsafe. The County Council should reject the proposed approach and move the officers back into regular beats. According to the police chief, the police department is grappling with a wave of retirements; these positions can fill the gaps while allowing reinvestment of county funds in services for students.
Though the push for police officers in schools is related to fears of school shootings, a recent study looked at every shooting at a K-12 school over a period of 40 years and found that more people died at schools with an armed officer than at those without one. The causes for that are complex, but suffice it to say that police officers in schools do not necessarily make us safer.
We can achieve the vision of safe, police-free schools if we hire and train staff — and engage students — as a nonviolent safety team of security staff, community intervention workers, violence interrupters, peace-builders, restorative justice coordinators, behavior interventionists, school aides, counselors, nonteaching assistants and other support staff.
Their collective responsibilities can include preventing and addressing safety concerns, bullying and conflict; monitoring school entrances and ensuring a welcoming environment; addressing the needs of students and root causes of their behavior by, for example, providing counseling and social-emotional skill-building; and preventing and de-escalating violent conflict.
With this approach in place, police officers would need to be called to a school only in the most extreme cases — for example, if there were an imminent risk of serious physical harm. Indeed, however we move forward, the school system should adopt a very limited list of incidents for which school officials can call for police support, which the Board of Education should approve.
I recognize that many residents support police officers in schools, arguing that they present an opportunity for mentorship and positive police-community relations. I believe, however, that there are other professionals who will be more successful in mentorship than a uniformed armed officer. A better community relations strategy for our police department is to find ways to reduce police presence where it is not needed and avoid unnecessary risks.
The County Council needs to make a decision, as Alexandria is doing now. If there is one setting where we should be able to model a decriminalized approach to dealing with behavior, it is our schools, where we have a variety of professionals available to respond. We just need the vision and dedication to get it done.