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Education Justice

Lawmakers Push to Replace School Police with Counselors

Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

When a child is arrested by a police officer stationed in a Baltimore City public school, they are handcuffed, placed in cages, photographed and fingerprinted — even kids as young as seven-years-old, according to Jenny Egan, a Baltimore City juvenile public defender.

“It is a terrifying and dehumanizing experience that sends a message to our children. This is who you are to us; this is what we think you deserve: cuffs and cages,” Egan said at a news conference Tuesday. “We have to think about the impact that has on a child who is trying to become the person they will be.”

She was speaking in support of a legislative package introduced by Dels. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery) and Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) seeking to restructure disciplinary measures in public schools across the state.

Acevero will introduce the Police Free Schools Act, designed to prohibit school districts from contracting with local law enforcement agencies to station police officers, also known as school resource officers, in public schools.

Sponsored by Wilkins, the Counselors Not Cops Act, will reallocate the $10 million in state funding set aside to pay for school resource officers to mental and behavioral health programs. This bill will be heard in the House Ways and Means Committee Wednesday.

On March 13, 2018, following the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that killed 17 people, state Sen. Katherine M. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County), introduced a bill to increase security at all public schools. 

Two days before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee heard Klausmeier’s bill, 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.

Klausmeier’s bill, amended, became law and mandated that all 24 jurisdictions in Maryland have “adequate local law enforcement coverage” or a school resource officer assigned to each public school campus. 

But just a few years later, sentiments in the legislature appear to be changing.

Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Acevero explained that the pair of bills he and Wilkins are sponsoring would not only “end the criminalization” of children, but would also “reimagine what school safety looks like.”

“Oftentimes when we talk about the school to prison pipeline, absent from that conversation is the role that police in schools … play in perpetuating this pipeline that siphons Black, Latinx, LGBTQ plus students and students with disabilities from the classroom to the jailhouse — forces them to navigate a complex legal system — but also traumatizes children and leave[s] them with not only an experience that our criminal legal system is known to provide to certain communities, but it also disrupts their education,” Acevero said.

“We can’t continue to fund and champion a program in our schools that criminalizes our Black students, our Brown students and students with disabilities, and then turn around and call it safe,” said Wilkins. “School safety includes prevention and proactive measures that ensure our schools have mental health services, incorporate trauma practices, restorative justice, access to social workers and wraparound services that create safe places for all teachers and students and parents.”

“It’s time that we proactively build these safe schools, and part of this starts with where our state invests its money,” she said.

Some students agree.

Youth As Resources — a youth-led, Baltimore-based nonprofit that organizes teens to tackle issues in their community — supports the changes that Acevero and Wilkins propose. 

Amir Ralph, a Baltimore City public school student who is vice-chair of the organization’s board of directors, said that school police accountability is a priority for Youth As Resources.

Ralph shared findings from a survey of 99 students and from student focus groups about whether police should be removed from schools.

“And although we continue to be concerned that students, including us, do not always feel safe, we did not find significant support for retaining police in schools,” he said, noting that 60% of respondents wanted officers removed from public school campuses completely and 20% replied that were uncertain.

“And even among those who felt that school police should be in schools, most wanted changes — very significant changes — like just having school police not wear uniforms and not get involved in fights and conflicts,” Ralph said.

Former Maryland congressional candidate Mckayla Wilkes (D) said that, as a young student, she was pushed toward the school-to-prison pipeline.

“I was one of the children that was ripped from the educational system and thrown into juvenile detention for minor offenses, just like so many other youth in the state of Maryland,” Wilkes explained. 

She now works towards dismantling that system through an organization she founded called Schools Not Jails.

Wilkes spoke Tuesday in favor of the legislative package, “100 percent.”

“All year in 2020, we saw injustice after injustice, and we screamed ‘Black Lives Matter,’” she said.

HB496 proves that Black Lives Matter,” Wilkes said, referring to Wilkins’ Counselors Not Cops Act.

‘It is a matter of state law’

Some of Maryland’s jurisdictions have tried to implement these policies at a local level. 

In November, Montgomery County Councilmembers William Jawando (D) and Hans Riemer (D) introduced legislation to remove school resource officers from the county’s public school campuses and, like Wilkins’ bill, redirect the money saved by cutting that program to mental health and restorative justice practices.

Jawando said that Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker (D) recently signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor, and Riemer said another councilmember is “fairly supportive.”

But Riemer said the county bill is “stalled” and needs five favorable votes to move forward.

Jawando told Maryland Matters in a phone interview Tuesday that the Student Government Association for the county’s middle and high schools passed a resolution to support the bill and more than half of the county’s unionized teachers voted to support the bill.

“We just got to have to keep moving through the process,” he said.

Hans Riemer, Montgomery County Council at-large member.

Both Riemer and Jawando support the Montgomery County delegates’ legislative package.

“I think it is something that should happen statewide,” Jawando said. “The data on SROs (school resource officers) is clear in that there is disproportionality in who’s arrested and for what, and there are much better and more effective tools that our schools and those students need.”

 Acevero said that he unsuccessfully attempted to push the House Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland to address the unequal impact that school resource officers have on minorities and disabled students over the summer.

“The reason why I was pushing that is because, at the time, the Montgomery County Office of Legislative Oversight released a report last year that showed that Black students accounted for a fifth of enrollment in Montgomery County Public Schools, but over half of all of its arrests,” said Acevero, noting that this also matched “troubling” data reported out of other jurisdictions.

He also said that state lawmakers shouldn’t have to rely on county leaders to end this policy on their own.

“What we’re looking at is not just the data in our county, but also the data statewide,” he explained. “And so while … there are similar efforts, what we’re hoping to do is really end this practice at the state level because it is a matter of state law.”

Wilkins said that local officials “feel like their hands are tied” by Maryland’s current statute.

“The Baltimore City School Police is an entity created by the legislature and can only be removed by the legislature,” Egan said. “It cannot be done locally.”

Under Maryland’s education code, the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners is required to operate its own police force with armed officers. 

Brittany Johnstone, a representative of the Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators and the Baltimore City Coalition for Police Free Schools, said that the Baltimore City Schools Police Force regularly overspends its budget “by millions of dollars,” while Baltimore City Public Schools regularly “under-spends their budget for social-emotional learning.”

“There are approximately 117 school police officers patrolling about 80,000 students in city schools,” she said. “Compare this with the fact that City Schools employs only 44 school nurses, about 140 school psychologists, less than 100 school counselors and under 200 school social workers.”

“If a hammer is the only tool that you have, then everything looks like a nail,” Johnstone asserted Tuesday. “We have seen this impact of the same-old, same-old approach for far too long, and we rise today with this collective to say it’s time for something different.”

Egan added that school police aren’t a phenomenon that began in the late 1990s or as a reaction to school shootings.

“The School Police Force in Baltimore City started in the early 1960s as a reaction to civil rights protests and efforts to desegregate schools,” she explained. “They were formalized as the Baltimore City Security Team — or, you know, they were called ‘security officers’ although they were armed and had arrest powers — and then that was codified into law in 1994.”

Acevero’s bill would disband the Baltimore City School Police Force.

But Jawando believes they need to keep pushing at the county level, too, noting that large amounts of money come from county budgets, as well as the state budget, for school resource officers.

House and Senate leaders have said the 2021 session is the year to push major police reform legislation.

Wilkins agreed that “now is the time to act,” and acknowledge the death, trauma, isolation and inequities exposed in the past year.

“These impacts will likely last for years,” she said. “Students and families deserve to be met with truly safe schools. Rather than confronting them with officers, we have to embrace them with support and services and recognize their basic humanity as children — not criminals — in order to truly keep them safe.”

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Lawmakers Push to Replace School Police with Counselors