With just weeks until classes begin Aug. 29, Montgomery County Public Schools and the county’s police department are working to make sure that schools and police officers understand their responsibilities under the new memorandum of understanding for the Community Engagement Officer (CEO) program.
CEOs and MCPS administrators gathered for a training summit on responses to school-based incidents Monday morning at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.
Police also announced on Monday that there will be a nonemergency phone number for MCPS staff members starting Aug. 1.
The county’s CEO program replaced the former school resource officer (SRO) program at the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year. Under the SRO program, county police officers were stationed full time in high schools. The program was scrapped after criticism that it led to higher arrests among Black and Hispanic students and community calls for more emphasis on mental health resources than policing in schools. Proponents counter that the SRO program led to stronger relationships between police officers and the school communities.
In April, MCPS signed a memorandum of understanding with six law enforcement agencies in the county outlining the responsibilities for CEOs in the 2022-2023 academic year. The current agreement allows CEOs to be in a space near the front office of a cluster’s high school. That’s a change from the prior version of the CEO program in which officers patrolled schools within a cluster, but couldn’t remain inside.
The new agreement mandates that CEOs undergo 40 hours of training on topics that include conflict resolution, alcohol and drug awareness, threat assessment and child abuse, among others.
The agreement states generally that police will take the lead for incidents including death investigations, rapes, hate crimes and possession of weapons. It also gives police discretion in other cases such as arson, the manufacture or possession of a destructive device and the distribution of a controlled dangerous substance.
County Police Chief Marcus Jones told reporters during Monday’s event at Walter Johnson that he hopes the training will help officers and administrators develop a better understanding of what types of crimes officers will investigate those that they may investigate.
“You have an incident that may occur that’s classified as a robbery. Let’s say a kid intimidates another kid by demanding their lunch money,” he said. “In a sense, if they take it be force, that’s technically a robbery. What we’re saying is, maybe the police department, by us coming and being involved and putting this through the criminal justice system, that there’s a lesson learned here.”
Jones said under the new agreement, simple possession of marijuana will no longer lead to a mandatory arrest.
“If there is someone who is selling illegal drugs in our school, such as fentanyl or other dangerous types of drugs, it may lead to a felony arrest because that’s something we take a lot more seriously,” he said.
When a reporter asked how the department would handle a case in which a CEO has overstepped their authority, Jones said it will depend on the severity of the offense, and whether it was intentional.
“If it’s a performance-based [issue], it’s corrective actions. If it’s a disciplinary act, then we would deal with that accordingly as I see the discipline that needs to be set forth,” he said.
During a presentation on helping child victims of sexual assault, Capt. Amy Daum of the police department’s Special Victims Investigations Division said CEOs are instructed not to conduct interviews with possible victims because recounting an incident can retraumatize the child.
“We find that the more times a child is asked to tell a story, it increases their trauma. It is a revictimization of that individual, and we want to give these kids the best chance they can to thrive,” she said.
Daum said in almost all cases of child sexual abuse, a social worker or therapist — someone trained in trauma-informed interviewing techniques — conducts the interview as opposed to a detective.
“Yes, we want to preserve the case to ensure that whatever is said is later admissible in court. But it’s also about providing those adequate resources and services so that a child can move on. That’s why we’re asking you not to do these interviews,” she told officers during the training.
Debbie Feinstein, the chief of the Special Victims Division of the State’s Attorney’s Office, said during the presentation that in 22 years as a prosecutor, she has seen interviews with child victims ultimately hurt those children in court.
“I can’t begin to tell you how many times earlier in my career, before we had all of these protocols, when there were initial interviews done, whether it was in a school or by a patrol [officer], or someone else, the details were left out and then that kid was attacked on the stand,” she said. “We don’t want that. We want the first, main interview to be comprehensive, trauma-informed for that child, and frankly also, for our pursuit of justice to get that offender held accountable for what they’ve done.”
Magruder cluster CEO getting ready for the year
With the community at Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood still dealing with the aftermath of a shooting that critically injured a student in January, Jason Cupeta, the CEO of the Magruder cluster, told Bethesda Beat that he has been continually checking in with school staff during summer school. Cupeta said he was also a school-based officer under the SRO program.
“The old way, I’ll be honest with you, we were able to better connect with the students because we were in there on a regular basis establishing relationships,” he said. “When we got pulled out of the schools it was more difficult and challenging to do that.”
Cupeta said he is optimistic that the second iteration of the CEO program will help rekindle relationships between officers, students and staff members.
“I think two things that stand out for me are that now, officially, the staff or the [administrator] can reach out directly to us via cellphone if they have questions or concerns,” he said. “With the old MOU they weren’t able to do that. [And] we are able to be in the schools now on a more regular basis and have a certain workspace or office space, so I think those are good changes.”
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org