Montgomery County Council members have different opinions on how county police should work with the school system — in particular, a new proposal in which officers would have work stations in each high school, but wouldn’t spend their full day there.
Some council members have said there needs to be more investment in mental health professionals to prevent conflict between students and staff, instead of relying on police. Other members support the proposed community engagement officer model, since police would be less involved than under the old model of having a police officer stationed in a school.
The Montgomery County Public Schools proposal is the newest version of the community engagement officer program, which differs from a school resource officer model that had been used for two decades. Under the SRO program, a police officer was stationed in every public high school.
The latest proposal was unveiled in the days following the first shooting inside a school in the district’s history in January.
County Executive Marc Elrich said last year that he would remove officers from public schools, and that MCPS officials and county police would work on a new model in which police officers were stationed in school cluster areas. Officers would respond to incidents at schools when they were called to help.
Before that decision, the County Council was debating two competing bills, neither of which reached a vote.
One bill, sponsored by Council Members Sidney Katz and Craig Rice, would allow the school system and superintendent to decide whether to keep officers in certain high schools. The other bill, sponsored by Council Members Will Jawando and Hans Riemer, would remove officers from schools entirely.
The first community engagement officer program assigned officers to certain geographic areas to serve school clusters. They are not stationed inside buildings and are not directly contacted when there is an incident at one of their schools. Principals must reach the officer through a dispatcher.
In recent months, MCPS Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight and school officials proposed a new community engagement officer model. In that model, officers would have offices within schools, but not be permanently stationed there.
They would not be patrolling hallways, officials have said — a difference from the school resource officer program. Officers still would operate within their school cluster, and respond to major events when called — and they would have more direct contact with the school principal.
Shiera Goff, a spokeswoman for the county police department, wrote in an email that a memorandum of understanding between MCPS and county police is being finalized and that negotiations are ongoing.
Elrich, council members, other county officials and many students have said that they want more of an emphasis on mental health and positions to deal with safety and student wellness, rather than deploying police to schools. School district officials told the County Council last week that they have hired about 22 of the 50 social worker positions they have had funds for since the fall to deal with that issue.
Chris Cram, a spokesman for MCPS, said Wednesday that four of those 22 social workers have begun work in schools. He didn’t know when the others would begin working.
In January, a 17-year-old student was arrested and charged with shooting a 15-year-old student inside Col. Zadok Magruder High School. Since then, Elrich, council members and some school officials have said reviving the school resource officer program would be a knee-jerk reaction to a problem much more complex than what high-profile incidents might indicate. High school principals, however, have said they favor having officers stationed in schools.
According to data released by Montgomery County police, there has been an increase in “serious incidents” from the 2019-20 school year to the current school year.
Data for the 2019-20 school year includes the fact that MCPS — along with school systems across Maryland — closed its classrooms, beginning on March 16, 2020. Schools remained closed for the remainder of that year. The school resource officer program was used then.
The majority of the 2020-21 school year was conducted virtually. Data provided for the current school year only included incidents up to Jan. 20, before the Magruder shooting. The school resource officer program has not been used.
According to Goff, “serious incidents” refers to cases involving arson, aggravated and simple assaults, bomb threats, homicides, rape, robberies, sex offenses, and weapon offenses (firearms or other). All incidents included in the data were under a “call for service disposition,” meaning the incident was the initial call that came into police when an event occurred.
For the 2019-20 school year, there were 255 “serious incidents.” In 2020-21, the number dropped to 42. For the current school year, until Jan. 20, there were 302 “serious incidents.” There were increases and decreases for certain offenses, depending on what the call for service to police was.
Sex offenses were up during this school year, with 97 calls, versus 33 calls in 2019-20. Assaults — aggravated and simple — were down, from 142 calls in 2019-20 to 105 calls in 2021-22.
There were 20 calls for robberies from 2019-20, and seven calls for robberies in the 2021-22 school year. Calls for weapon offenses are up this year, from 46 in the 2019-20 school year to 66 in 2021-22.
Mental health focus
Rice and Katz chair two council committees that have a role in school safety discussions: the Education and Culture committee and the Public Safety committee.
Rice said in an interview that he supports the community engagement officer program proposed by McKnight and MCPS officials.
The new community engagement officer model would also provide more of a direct contact line between school principals and their respective officers. Rice said police officers would not be in the school buildings all day.
“It would be something [I would oppose] if that officer were sitting there at that office space desk all day, but we know that’s not the case, just as officers don’t sit at their desk in their own home precincts now. … And so, from that standpoint, that’s a mistaken assumption,” Rice said.
Rice said he wishes MCPS filled the social worker positions more quickly, but school district officials need to hire the best people to fill those vacancies.
“We just don’t want to put bodies in there, just to … take up space,” Rice said. “We need to make sure these folks are actually doing what they need to be doing and supporting our students, but also our faculty and staff that are in the buildings, as well.”
Council Member Hans Riemer, however, is concerned that the current proposal doesn’t focus enough on mental health professionals and violence prevention. He thinks the proposed community engagement officer model, with the office space in schools, is too much of a return to the old school resource officer model.
Other mental health professionals and violence prevention experts are more effective than police officers, Riemer said. Officers should focus on violent and more serious crime, he said.
“I think you’ll get a lot more impact in reducing incidents with professionals that are more able to … build that trusting relationship with kids who are at risk,” Riemer said. “And … I’ve never believed that the [police] officer is the best professional to do that. And I think there are many other kinds of professionals who can have much greater success.”
Katz said in an interview that he is waiting to see the final memorandum of understanding between police and MCPS officials before forming an opinion.
He said he has heard multiple positive stories about interactions between police officers and students, including students in elementary schools, but also has heard from many in the community who don’t agree.
He agrees with Elrich that police shouldn’t be in charge of disciplinary action with students in schools.
“I believe that … the schools need to do the discipline [work] for the schools,” Katz said. “I mean, if it’s something criminal, that’s a different story. But if it’s a discipline situation, then the school themselves need to be doing that.”
Jawando, a co-sponsor with Riemer on the bill to remove police officers entirely from schools, could not be reached for comment through multiple phone calls this week.
County Council President Gabe Albornoz said in an interview that he trusts the recommendations of McKnight and MCPS officials on what the district needs. If that means more of a police presence in schools than the current model, Albornoz said, he will support that.
Albornoz said he is concerned about recent “serious incidents” in schools, including the Magruder shooting, weapons being taken to schools, fights and sexual assaults. These incidents are beyond what general security staff can handle, he said.
The issue is complex, Albornoz said — there is a threat to the community, but many students feel anxiety or fear when they see a uniformed police officer.
One possibility for improving the relationship between law enforcement and students is having a civilian employee of the department work on bettering relationships, Albornoz said.
He specifically commended the late Blanca Kling, the Hispanic liaison in the department. Kling was shorter than 5 feet tall, but had a heart “bigger than Montgomery County,” Albornoz said.
She established relationships with students and community members, who trusted her with sensitive information, Albornoz said. Kling died in January 2021 after battling COVID-related pneumonia.
“I would argue that she did as much, or more, as any uniformed police officer to prevent crime in Montgomery County. … That kind of interaction and partnership and trust that is established between the community and law enforcement. through somebody who’s not a uniformed police officer, I think could go a long way,” Albornoz said.
In an interview, Elrich said that if he had known it would take MCPS such a long time to hire 50 social workers, he would have talked more about an “interim” plan between removing school resource officers and hiring those workers.
Elrich said he is fine with the new community engagement officer proposal, with work space for officers inside the school. They’re not going to be patrolling the halls or in the schools during most of the school day, he added.
Regarding his position to remove school resource officers a year ago, he said he wanted to do something as the County Council debated its two bills.
“Everybody is waiting for their decision, [and] you’ve got a council that’s already made up its mind one way or the other, and I could never tell which way the five [members] were going to [vote],” Elrich said. “I wanted to help put this thing to rest, and I was able to get Craig [Rice’s] support and Sidney’s [Katz’] support. I went with a plan that had some more support than just a simple 5-4 split on the council.”
Staff writer Caitlynn Peetz contributed to this story.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at email@example.com