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Opinion Should police be in schools? The debate is complicated.

Police help to bring in busses to remove students after a shooting incident at Magruder High School in Derwood, Md., on Jan. 21. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

When schools in Montgomery County opened in August, there were — for the first time in 19 years — no police officers stationed in them. In the wake of the national reckoning over police violence that followed the death of George Floyd, officers in schools were seen as more threat than protection. But violent incidents during the school year — including a shooting at Magruder High School in Rockville in which a student was critically injured — prompted some second guessing, and the county now seems poised to invite back some police presence into its schools.

Montgomery County is not alone in re-litigating the debate over school resource officers. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is pushing the D.C. Council to reconsider its decision last year to abolish the school police program. Instead of continuing on plans to phase out the program, Ms. Bowser has proposed adding $500,000 to next year’s fiscal budget to continue it with beefed-up training for officers.

The debate about the presence of police in schools that is unfolding in Montgomery County, D.C. and other parts of the country is reflective of the tensions that have animated the broader debate over policing. Opponents argue that armed police officers are a disruptive force in an educational setting, criminalizing student behavior with disproportionate damage done to minority students and those with disabilities. Supporters of the program say it protects against school violence while helping to improve relationships between young people and police. Well-trained school resource officers, they say, become counselors and mentors.

Montgomery officials are trying to thread the needle by addressing the concerns of both sides. There have been some stumbles, starting with the decision to pull the officers out of the schools without a better thought-out alternative. Instead of having officers inside schools, community engagement officers were assigned to certain geographic areas to serve school clusters and stationed in surrounding neighborhoods. Principals were not allowed to directly contact the officers but had to go through a dispatcher. They were unanimous in their disapproval of this unwieldy arrangement and called for a return of school resource officers.

A new arrangement is now in the works, The Post’s Rebecca Tan reported, with a memorandum of understanding being drafted between police and the school system. Among the changes being discussed: having police partially stationed inside school buildings, allowing school administrators to contact officers directly and requiring that police engage not just with public high schools but also middle and elementary schools. Student activists and criminal justice advocates who successfully pushed leaders to remove the officers were angered by being excluded from negotiations over the proposal, a departure from last year when community stakeholders were invited to participate in the process. No doubt the difference in approach is due to the changed political dynamic that has resulted from heightened concerns about the increase in crime and a new appreciation for police. Montgomery officials have also taken steps to increase the number of social workers and counselors — a recognition of the larger fact, which is that police alone cannot make our schools, or our streets, as safe as they should be.

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