Montgomery County high school principals “unanimously” support keeping police in schools, according to district officials.
In June, amid a national outcry over police brutality against Black people, the school board directed Superintendent Jack Smith to compile data and information to help it assess whether to discontinue or modify the school resource officer program.
During a meeting on Monday afternoon, MCPS staff members told the school board that high school principals — all 25 of whom have full-time resource officers on their campuses — agree that the officers are beneficial and that the program should not be disbanded, according to a recent survey, a strong statement in support of the program that has come under fire by many advocates and students.
Three principals who serve on a committee formed to help guide the reevaluation process spoke during Monday’s meeting. None explicitly said whether they support keeping school resource officers — police officers assigned to schools — but each highlighted the benefits of having them employed at their schools.
Among the benefits they discussed were helping with their school’s crisis planning and restorative justice practices, and providing guidance when there is a safety concern. Additionally, the principals said, resource officers help “create a safe environment” for students and staff members and are positive role models. The officers “help work through challenges that are maybe outside of our realm as school-based employees,” one principal said.
The principals who spoke on Monday were Beth Thomas of Quince Orchard High School, Edward Owusu of Clarksburg High and Norman Coleman of Francis Scott Key Middle.
But in recent months, a push to remove police from schools and redirect funding to other services, like hiring more counselors and nurses, has heated up. Advocates have pointed to data that show Black and Hispanic students are more likely to receive harsher punishments or be arrested than their peers, which is true in Montgomery County.
In MCPS, 460 students were arrested in the past three school years, according to data presented to the school board on Monday. Of those arrests, 382 (83%) were of Black and Hispanic students. Eleven percent of arrests were of white students during the same time period.
MCPS’ student population is about 27% white, 21% Black and 32% Hispanic, according to MCPS data.
The data for the 2019-20 school year was only compiled through March because the COVID-19 pandemic closed school buildings that month.
Students were most commonly arrested for possessing drugs or weapons and for attacking other students, according to the data. The data were not broken down by school.
The data for each offense were not disaggregated by race.
Henry Johnson, Smith’s chief of staff, said resource officers did not make all of the arrests recorded. Sometimes, he said, police arrest students on school property for incidents that did not occur at school, which “skews the data tremendously.”
Each of the years for which data were provided showed a decrease in the number of overall arrests. During the 2017-18 school year, there were 226 student arrests, compared to 163 in 2018-19 and 77 in 2019-20.
“We’re trending in the right direction, as far as the number of arrests, but at the same time, we’re seeing the trend where there’s overrepresentation of minority students in the district,” said Ed Clarke, MCPS’ director of school safety and security. “… We need to roll up our sleeves and do better about this.”
All of the presenters during Monday’s meeting appeared to favor school resource officers. No presenters spoke in opposition to the program.
Former school board President Mike Durso, who is helping with the work group, said people “sometimes dwell on the negatives,” but “there are no statistics” for the incidents school resource officers have prevented.
“I’d venture to say the average citizen in this county could not name one police officer, and yet the opportunity for our young people, who a lot of times have strong opinions about law enforcement, for them to have those positive interactions, I think the ripple effect of that can be huge,” Durso said.
Durso added: “Most of us would like to see more mental health services, but that does not mean that they are in lieu of SROs, but, perhaps, in addition to.”
Clarke said regardless of whether there are officers on school campuses, “there will still be ongoing interaction with law enforcement officers coming to schools for calls for service in a variety of ways.” But, having officers consistently on the scene who know administrators, staff members and students is beneficial, Quince Orchard Resource Officer Joe Lowery said.
Additionally, he said, officers “don’t have anything to do with discipline.”
“Our presence here is to be part of the school community and the tapestry that makes up the partners at work here during the day,” Lowery said.
Smith is required to recommend by January what action the school board should take, if any, about the school resource officer program.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org