MCPS must not revert to the SRO program

Dec. 21, 2023, 6:25 p.m. | By Tejusvi Vijay | 2 months ago

Though the county removed funding for the SRO program two years ago, MCPS is far from implementing a long-term solution

MCPS removed funding for the School Resource Officer (SRO) program in 2021 and introduced the Community Engagement Officer (CEO) program in 2022. Photo courtesy of Bitanya Hailu.

The intercom announcements, Remind messages, and Instagram reposts regarding lockdowns, evacuations, and threats have become all too familiar for students across the county. The recent uptick in threats have led many students and families to ask: do MCPS policies surrounding safety and security really have students' best interests in mind?

While increased security measures are needed to keep students safe, MCPS must keep up with its promise to continue funding and expanding restorative justice programs and mental health resources within schools.

SROs (School Resource Officers) are law enforcement officers that are liaisons between a school and the community. The officers were first introduced in schools across the country in the early 2000s following the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. According to a Preliminary Report from the Montgomery County Government Work Group revised in October 2020, MCPS SROs were trained in “emergency preparedness, crisis management, community policing concepts, and problem solving.”

Almost 20 years after the program’s introduction, under the guidance of County Executive Marc Elrich, MCPS defunded the SRO program. This came after months of meetings with policymakers and petitions organized by student groups across the county fueled by the global racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Disparities in SRO arrests

Students and educators across MCPS highlighted State and Board of Education data from the 2016 to 2019 school years that found that 48% of MCPS students arrested on school property were black students, despite there being no evidence reflecting higher levels of misconduct among black students than their classmates of other backgrounds. A fact sheet compiled by the Maryland Coalition to Reform School Discipline in 2020 even reported that students with disabilities or IEPs received a quarter of school-based arrests. Beyond the racial inequities that stem from policing within schools, there is little to no data nationally or within Maryland showing that SROs have reduced violence in schools.

While some community members and administrators support the implementation of the SRO program, many students, especially students of color, fear for the program’s return. Blair senior and school SGA vice president Ach’sah Gubena worries that having officers could make students feel uncomfortable within the school building. “We have such a diverse population of students … [including] students who might have a history [of interacting] with law enforcement. It definitely sounds scary for them and it definitely does sound scary for me knowing that that could be a possibility,” she says.

While many considered Elrich’s defunding of the program in 2021 to be the end of SROs, MCPS was quick to replace it with the Community Engagement Officer (CEO) program during the 2022-23 school year. As outlined in the 2022 Memorandum of Understanding, CEOs play a similar role as SROs but cannot act on the basis of student discipline and serve a cluster of schools, rather than being stationed daily at one school.

Even after bringing back the SRO program in another form, MCPS signed a further agreement with the police department in the spring of 2022 that would bring a larger law enforcement presence after the 2022 shooting at Magruder High School. Officials worked with advisory councils and student groups to brainstorm ideas, but the agreement was finalized with little community input. 

The new 2022 Memorandum of Understanding added slight differences like CEOs having a “private, designated office near the Main Office,” enhancing “ the relationship and level of community engagement with the elementary and middle school communities,” and being able to “view available security video footage related to a critical incident.”

Benefits of an SRO

While the institution of policing can disproportionately harm students of color and disabled students, some students found the individual onsite officers to be a trusted resource to turn to. Acting Assistant Principal Rahman Culver found Blair’s former SRO, Officer Junious, to be a valuable community partner. “She would be consulted if there were issues in the building involving suspected substance possession or if there were issues of violence between students that may have required additional support, as well as just being an additional mentor in the building,” Culver says.

As well as serving law enforcement duties, SROs were often mentors that students and staff members could rely on for support. In fact, Blair’s previous SRO worked with the security team to mentor and form connections with at-risk students.

The SRO’s daily presence allowed administration to be ready to respond to incidents and potential conflicts as soon as they happened. With the current CEO model, schools have fewer resources within the building to call for immediate support as a single officer is assigned to several schools. Still, MCPS does not need to have law enforcement serve as this mentor figure - there are other professionals and mental health resources that would better support the needs of students.

In response to the recent bomb threats, the Blair administration has worked closely with law enforcement at a variety of levels. Having a regular presence and liaison between law enforcement and schools would streamline the process. “When we have an event of this magnitude, we have all types of law enforcement responding, that go well beyond just our assigned community engagement officer or a school resource officer. The idea is that by having someone who can be a consistent liaison, allows us to hopefully, help things move a little bit more efficiently,” Culver says.

While these benefits sound promising, there is little evidence that the addition of law enforcement officers help prevent violence and promote student safety. In the case of the recent bomb threats, having a law enforcement officer in the building could not have helped students move to safety faster. In every case, students were told to stay outside while local officers searched the school and guarded entrances. A single officer stationed at the school could not have provided all of these services - a team of local officers would have had to step in regardless.

Demands that need to be met

Instead of defaulting to the flawed and racist system that was in place for nearly two decades, MCPS should focus on new programs that can serve as systemic solutions.

Blair’s Diversity and Inclusion Instructional Coordinator, Neha Singhal, worked with students across the county during the fight to remove SROs in 2020 and believes that MCPS needs to take action on expanding mental health resources before reverting to the SRO program. “My hope is that instead of sliding back into the SRO program or expanding policing, how about we continue with the demands that weren't met? How about we get more restorative folks, social workers, folks who are trained in mental health?” she says.

Young People for Progress Campaign Organizer and Blair alumni Amyra Hasan believes that the current system of suspensions and expulsions do not serve as systemic solutions. “I think that we need to trust the [restorative justice] program to deliver these long-term results … Punishing students or suspending students seems like a good idea in the short term. You get rid of the problem, but you also get rid of the student,” Hasan says.

The current system does not put the student and their wellbeing at the center of the story. Schools should shift their focus from delivering short-term solutions like suspensions to trying to address the problem at its root. Blair senior and school SGA president Cate Sauri believes that to move in the right direction, MCPS must increase access to mental health resources and professionals. “I think there should be more of an effort to involve mental health resources and restorative justice practices to understand why the problems are occurring in the first place,” Sauri says.

The American Civil Liberties Union found that schools that have counselors, psychologists, and social workers see lower rates of misconduct. “Schools with such services see improved attendance rates, better academic achievement, and higher graduation rates as well as lower rates of suspension, expulsion, and other disciplinary incidents,” the ACLU reports.

And despite this evidence, MCPS saw a 33% decline in school psychologists over the past four years. This school year, 27 MCPS schools have vacant psychologist positions. To move forward, MCPS must realize that students across the county need access to resources and professionals like psychologists, not law enforcement officers that have office spaces.

MCPS should also focus on tapping into and expanding upon restorative justice programs. According to MCPS, restorative justice is a “social justice platform that allows students to actively engage and problem solve physical, psychological, social and disciplinary issues that affect their lives and the community at large; and take responsibility for their actions and work with those affected to restore the community and members who were harmed as a result of those actions.” 

Restorative justice has already seen an impact. Tiffany Kelly of MoCo360 found a “41% reduction in suspensions of Black students in restorative justice middle schools.” Though most schools across the county now do have a school-based restorative justice coach, these positions are not full-time and are roles that counselors and administrators must take on in addition to their current load. Schools that do not have restorative justice coaches in the building must rely on central office specialists that serve several schools.

In the past three years, MCPS’s relationship with law enforcement has changed dramatically. The replacement of SROs with CEOs and the recent uptick in threats, lockdowns, and evacuations have brought security issues to the forefront. Young People for Progress Executive Director Danielle Blocker believes that while it now looks like very little has changed within our hallways, the conversations taking place at the county level between students, educators, and policymakers are a huge step forward. “Changing the narrative was important. But in terms of the actual effects on students… there's a lot to be desired,” she says.

Like Blocker says, MCPS needs to understand that there is more to do to support students. And these solutions do not come in the form of arrests, suspensions, and punishments. MCPS needs to focus on long-term solutions and expand restorative justice programs and mental health resources.

Last updated: Dec. 21, 2023, 6:27 p.m.

Tags: SRO program

Tejusvi Vijay. Hello! My name is Teju (she/her) and I'm a staff writer. Outside of SCO, I enjoy playing board games, watching Disney movies, and telling puns. More »

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