Some Counties Push to Remove Police From Schools — But Who Has the Authority to Make the Call?

A Montgomery County school bus. Photo by Teresa Johnson/Capital News Service

Jason Melara is a former Montgomery County Public Schools student who frequently found himself in traumatic situations with police officers stationed at his high school.

“On many occasions, I felt obligated to ask for help from [school resource officers], but it was the worst thing I could have done,” he said.

“I am here to give my testimony, and to summarize in a few words the hell that I had to go through during my time as a student in Montgomery County,” Melara said as he shared his story, translated from Spanish to English, to reporters at a news conference last week.

He described officers laughing at him when he asked them to intervene when other kids hit him. Melara said they told him that they didn’t understand him and that he might have deserved the treatment he received from other students.

When he asked them for help finding a classroom, they, again, laughed, told him he was “good for nothing” and called him an “Hispanic piece of shit.”

“They humiliated me the way they saw fit,” Melara told Montgomery County Councilmen William Jawando (D) and Hans Riemer (D) last week. “The only thing that I wanted was to find someone that told me, ‘Hey kid, are you OK? Is there something wrong? Do you need something? I’m here to help,’ but, disappointedly, I only found verbal aggression [and] insults.”

He shared his story to Jawando and Riemer in an effort to have school resource officers removed from Montgomery County Public Schools completely.

“Why don’t I want police in schools?” Melara asked. “Because I had too many bad experiences with the [school] resource officers at my school.”

He may get his wish.

Jawando and Riemer introduced legislation to their fellow councilmembers to remove school resource officers from Montgomery County Public Schools and reinvest the money saved by cutting the program into mental health and restorative justice practices.

The bill’s public hearing is set for Jan 12, 2021.

Jawando said that the presence of police in schools disproportionately harms students of color, noting that 50% of those arrested in the last four years were Black.

Black students make up about 20% of the Montgomery County Public Schools’ student body.

During the 2018-2019 school year, 163 students were arrested on Montgomery County Public School campuses — 42 by student resource officers.

Of the 163 arrested students, 45% were Black and 34% were Hispanic.

“This is not about SROs being bad people,” said Jawando. “I know many of our SROs are good folks who care about kids.”

“It’s about in a time of limited resources, and considering the global pandemic that’s happening right now, and the social justice pandemic that we’re seeing, and the police violence across the country and here at home, that we must make these changes now and reallocate these resources and support all students: their safety, their mental health, their well-being,” he said.

Other members of the Montgomery County Council pushed back on the bill, arguing that the Board of Education needs to have a voice in whether or not police should be removed from their institutions.

“For every student that you can produce that tells me that school resource officers are horrible and they don’t want them, I can produce the same number that said they do,” said Councilman Craig Rice (D) during the bill’s introduction Tuesday evening. “Same with parents; same with administrators; same with teachers ― it’s the whole nine yards.”

Riemer said that, while police may be necessary on occasion, there are other, more holistic avenues to pursue.

“I recognize that occasionally there are serious, violent incidents or threats that indeed may require an arrest,” Riemer said at last week’s news conference. “But as a general practice arresting a student is giving up on that student.”

“I know it is more difficult to engage in diversionary approaches, and counseling, and programming and in restorative justice, but we owe that to our students and to our community.”

But do they have the authority?

In 2018, following the school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that left 17 people dead, state Sen. Katherine M. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County) introduced a bill requiring lockable doors in every Maryland classroom, more surveillance technology and active threat drills at the start of each school year.

Klausmeier’s legislation was introduced in the Senate on March 13. Two days before the bill was heard before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, a teen at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County fatally shot one student, injured another and killed himself. A school resource officer at the campus confronted the gunman.

After a series of hearings and debate on other school safety measures, the requirement for active threat drills was removed from the bill and ― among 40 pages of amendments ― all 24 jurisdictions in Maryland were required to have a school resource officer or “adequate local law enforcement coverage” assigned to each public school campus.

The amended legislation was co-sponsored by members on both sides of the aisle and passed nearly unanimously. The one dissenting vote was cast by the chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s).

But now that counties and school systems are looking to do away with school resource officers, where does the jurisdiction lie?

Different approaches

In Montgomery County, county council members say they have the power to fund ― or defund ― the school resource officer program.

Riemer said that the county’s board of education is poised to make a recommendation on the issue. He’s seen conflicting reviews of the program ― from principals who advocate for it to the superintendent who Riemer said questions its necessity.

“I’ve seen very interesting comments from [Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent] Dr. [Jack R.] Smith,” Riemer told reporters. “He said that when he was a principal, he never had an SRO in his schools ― wasn’t totally sure about the need for them.”

At a media briefing on Nov. 16, Smith said that he doesn’t have a particular position on whether officers are removed from schools or not.

“I don’t really have an opinion on the legislation. That’s the county government’s venue — I really don’t,” Smith told reporters. “But in terms of the school system as a whole, I’ve heard many many different voices on this topic — community residents, students, principals, teachers, families — and we take all of that into account.”

Jawando said that the Montgomery County Council started the program, so the ball is in their court when it comes to ending it.

“This money is $3 million from the county budget that we’re elected to appropriate, and it’s given to the police department to implement this program,” he explained. “I think the decision about what our police do or don’t do, that’s a decision appropriately placed with the County Council ― with the county government ― as the program was started and pushed forward by [the] county council and county government.”

In Prince George’s County, the school board is making a decision about the program’s fate.

Members of the Prince George’s County Board of Education have recently discussed removing school resource officers from public school campuses and replacing them with mental health professionals and social workers several times this year. The first was at a meeting of the board’s Operations, Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee on June 8 ― 15 days after George Floyd was slain at the hands of Minneapolis police.

At a full meeting of the board on June 11, the issue was tabled until September and was tabled once again to January 2021.

During the 2018-2019 school year, 311 Prince George’s County students were arrested. Only 38 were apprehended by school resource officers.

Of the 311, 87% were Black.

In 2018, 58% of Prince George’s County Public School students were Black.

The Howard County Council and Board of Education have had joint discussions about school resource officers.

According to a document from the Howard County Public School System, the county has been discussing the necessity of police in public schools since the 2017-2018 school year, at least.

Howard County Public Schools entered into a five-year memorandum of understanding on Jan. 26, 2015, with the Howard County Police Department to have their officers serve as school resource officers.

The budget for the program, according to Dr. Michael J. Martirano, superintendent of Howard County Public Schools, comes from the Howard County Police Department. But the decision to remove officers from schools lies with the county board of education, he said at a joint meeting in October.

“We had discussion[s] before. There was a failed vote to remove SRO[s] from schools,” Howard County Board of Education member Dr. Chao Wu told Maryland Matters in an email. “There will be future board discussion on this topic early next year.”

Kathleen Hanks, the administrator for the Howard County Board of Education, said the body is “tentatively schedule[d] to discuss and possibly vote on the matter on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.”

Seventy-two Howard County students were arrested during the 2017-2018 school year — 68 by school resource officers.

Of the students arrested, 64% were Black.

In 2018, Black students comprised 24% of the school district’s population.

Some jurisdictions, like Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties haven’t taken up the conversation at all.

In fact, some of them tout school resource officers as role models for students and have expanded their jurisdiction within public schools.

Harford County Council President Patrick S. Vincenti (R) told Maryland Matters in a phone interview that he has heard no stirrings from his council about removing school resource officers. But Harford County Board of Education President Jansen Robinson made a strong case for keeping them around.

“Within the last few years, we’ve expanded our SRO program to not only our secondary schools, but to our elementary schools,” Robinson said in a statement. “Our students know their SRO; our students seek out the SRO in their school to talk to them, students build relationships with their SRO, students follow their SRO on social media, and students participate in after school activities with their SRO.”

“We are not in discussions or considering changes to our valued and effective SRO program.”

Of the 215 arrests made on Harford County Public School campuses during the 2018-2019 school year, 214 were conducted by school resource officers.

More than half of the arrested students were Black.

In 2018, 19% of Harford County school students were Black.

The Anne Arundel County Council hasn’t discussed it. According to Christopher J. Trumbauer, director of policy and communications for County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), conversations have been had in his office but Pittman has no plans to introduce legislation for their removal.

Board members from the Anne Arundel County Board of Education haven’t approached the topic either.

“The Board members have not discussed the removal of SRO’s from schools in AACPS,” Diane M. Howell, executive assistant for the county board of education, told Maryland Matters in an email, “in fact they just received a presentation from [the] Anne Arundel County Police Department on Wednesday [Nov. 18], highlighting the wonderful things that the SRO’s provide for the students of AACPS.”

Anne Arundel County school resource officers made 304 of 356 arrests during the 2018-2019 school year.

Of the 356 arrests, 54% were Black students.

In 2018, Black students comprised 21% of the county’s total student body.

Over the spring, Baltimore City’s School Board updated their memorandum of understanding with the Baltimore City Police Department.

“Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools) remains committed to providing and maintaining an environment that is safe for its students, teachers and staff,” Gwendolyn A. Chambers, media relations manager for Baltimore City Public Schools, wrote Maryland Matters in an email. “Unlike in many other school districts, City Schools Police are a unit of City Schools.”

During the 2018-2019 school year, 62 students were arrested on Baltimore City Public School campuses. 47 of those arrests were executed by school resource officers.

Ninety percent of the students arrested were Black.

In 2018, Black students made up 79% of Baltimore City’s student body.

It comes down to interpretation

But some counties return to the 2018 legislation as a hand-tying mechanism.

While Frederick County Board of Education President Brad Young says that the discussion hasn’t even been broached, the county council says the core of the issue lies with the state.

“That is a State agenda and does not fall under the direction of the County Council,” Ragen Cherney, the legislative director for the Frederick County Council, emailed.

The Baltimore County Board of Education has also not discussed the removal of school resource officers, and Thomas H. Bostwick, legislative counsel for the Baltimore County Council concurred with his Frederick counterpart.

“This is really a State law issue,” Bostwick said in an email. “The County Board of Education and the Public School System is a State agency, not a County agency. And the SRO program is also set forth in the State Code.”

So how are Jawando and Riemer able to introduce this legislation?

Jawando told Maryland Matters in a brief phone interview on Friday that it really comes down to interpretation.

“There have been no regulations issued with the law so there’s no definition further than what’s in the bill which requires adequate coverage,” he explained. “In my view, that means that police officers can respond quickly and adequately if they need to to a school, and that doesn’t mean … that they have to have an SRO in the school.”

Jawando said that “adequate coverage” could mean something as simple as officers patrolling a school’s surrounding area in close enough proximity to respond quickly should an incident arise.

“We definitely want the beat and patrol officers near high schools, for example, to know the principals; we want them to be familiar with administration; we want people to be able to communicate to them quickly if they need to if there is an emergency where police support is required, but I don’t think that needs to include ― and shouldn’t include because [of] the disproportionate harm that’s happening in the form of arrest ― all-the-time, all-access presence of an officer.”

“I think the core point is we should build a system that doesn’t fundamentally have arrest at its core,” said Riemer. “That’s what we have now: We have built a system for kids that relies upon arrests.”

“I think if you had professionals who were adept at dealing with kids who were getting into situations, but for whom it wasn’t the threat of arrest hanging over everything, I think they might be able to do a better job.”

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