SRO Program: ‘Fundamentally Mismatched for Schools’ in Montgomery County

SRO Program: ‘Fundamentally Mismatched for Schools’ in Montgomery County

Kyson Taylor told Montgomery County Council that every school day before the pandemic, he would dread the walk to portable classrooms at Richard Montgomery High School. “Every step of the way, I could feel my SRO’s eyes following me,” said Taylor, who is Black.

Thirty-one of 33 speakers last Thursday night, Feb. 4, 2021, spoke virtually in support of councilmember Will Jawando’s bill to prohibit Student Resource Officers (SROs) in Montgomery County High Schools, including Tiller.

“Instead of investing in therapeutic services, my county chose to invest in a program that made me feel uncomfortable in my school. Instead of investing in social workers, my county chose to invest in a program that policed me in my school. Instead of investing in restorative justice, my county chose to invest in a program that damaged the lives of countless of my peers,” said Taylor.

“Every step of the way, I could feel my SRO’s eyes following me.”

— Kyson Taylor

Shelly Brown has represented more than 600 youth in courtrooms and Montgomery County Schools expulsion and suspension hearings. “It is clear from my experience working with these children that having SROs at our schools causes anxiety and stress to our students on a daily basis,” she said.

Stephanie Joseph, with the Officer of the Public Defender, also represents youth. “Because the police are in schools, children are punished twice for behavioral incidents, first with a suspension and then with a court date. Even when there’s no arrest, the experience of being policed in school can result in trauma and lack of school engagement,” said Joseph.

Megan Berger, another attorney, with Disability Rights Maryland, said, “research shows that only one instance of police contact increases the likelihood that a young person will have further involvement with the criminal justice system, will fall behind, or ultimately drop out of school.”

Lauren Payne, from Young People for Progress and a senior at Richard Montgomery, thanked Jawando for introducing the bill and “putting young people first.”

“I am here not only as a student, but as a young person of color, as a Black girl who knows what it is like to feel fearful in the presence of police officers. I know what it is like to be in schools struggling with mental health but not receiving any guidance because of lack of resources,” said Payne.

“There is a difference between policing students and protecting students. There is a difference between funding a program that does nothing but criminalize and traumatize Black and brown students versus funding a program that actually affects their learning, that supports their mental and emotional and physical well being.

“Montgomery county loves to talk about equity while simultaneously funding a program that disproportionately affects Black and brown students,” Payne said. “I hope you have listened to the students today.”

Allyson Bennett, a junior at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School and a member of Students Toward Equitable Public Schools, said SROs have never treated her poorly.

“I have not had a negative experience with an SRO,” said Bennett. “And that is the point because my Black classmates cannot say the same.”

BLACK AND HISPANIC students are suspended twice as often as their white peers in elementary, middle and high schools. Special education students are suspended twice as much as all other students, according to data from Montgomery County Public Schools.

Students of color are four times as likely as their white peers to be arrested in school. While awaiting trial, they are 10 times as likely to be held by the Department of Juvenile Justice as their white peers. And they are nine times as likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.

By the time students reach high schools, where the police department’s school resource officers are employed as a daily presence in the lives of students, the data shows more disparity. During the 2018-2019 school year, Black students were arrested 73 times and Hispanic students 55 times of the 163 student arrests that school year, compared to 32 White students, and 2 Asian students, according to MCPS data. In the 2019-2020 school year, shortened by the pandemic, Black students and HIspanic students accounted for 62 (34 Black students and 28 Hispanic students) of the 71 arrests.

At-large councilmembers Will Jawando and Hans Riemer introduced their bill last November that would eliminate school resource officers from public schools, calling the program a part of the school-to-prison pipeline.

At the public hearing last Thursday, Matt Post, graduate of Sherwood High School and a former member of Montgomery County Board of Education, spoke in tandem with Kennedy High School graduate Nate Tinbite. As past student members of the board, they say they reviewed internal incident reports and rulings on dozens of disciplinary appeals.

“We know making schools safer does not begin with handcuffs,” said Post. “The SRO program has many good officers and many good intentions, but the program itself is fundamentally mismatched for schools.”

“Matt and I believe that instead of training police officers to act a little more like social workers, let’s just hire social workers. There’s no need to make the possibility of arrest ever present in every matter of student discipline,” said Tinbite.

“The county came up with this program and has final jurisdiction over its policies. Ultimately, the $3 million dollars of funding for the School Resource Officers is in your hands, not the school system,” he said. “Addressing this part of the school to prison pipeline is not up to the school system, it is up to you.”

“Everyone on this council seems to agree that Black lives matter, and if you sincerely believe that, then the massively disproportionate arrest statistics, wrenching stories, and national peer reviewed research should be enough. End this program,” said Tinbite.

“Make our schools truly safe and prove that Black lives matter in Montgomery County.”

WHEN COLUMBINE HAPPENED, “I sat where you are.” said former Councilmember Phi Andrews said.

He was one of two people to voice opposition to Jawando’s bill last Thursday.

“As chair of the County Council’s public safety committee from 2000 to 2014, I supported SROs and worked closely with Councilmember Craig Rice, chair of the council’s education committee, to help save them during the great recession,” said Andrews.

He called the SRO program “a prudent strategy to keep schools safe.”

“We need both SROs and more mental health services,” he said.

SROs “helped stop several potential disasters” at Walter Johnson, Clarksburg, and Einstein high schools in recent years, where students alerted SROs of peers bringing or threatening to bring weapons to school.

“Note that the students sought out SROs to help because SROs spend time building relationships of trust with students and students know they are able to respond to a lethal threat.That’s why school security can not substitute for SROs,” he said.

The only other person to support the SRO program was a prosecutor, George E. Simms III, who spoke on behalf of Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy.

“I’ve seen them at the table with a child who is in need of help, with a family that needs substance abuse treatment or housing, with a child who is in an unhealthy relationship or is in need of food,” said Simms.

Simms talked about SROs help with McCarthy’s truancy prevention program. He shared an anecdote of a student who came from a different country who befriended the SRO in the school, and became an SRO himself after his graduation.

“I’ve seen SROs motivate students to succeed,” he said.

“This is just one example of how SROs provide mentoring, tutoring and positive intervention in the lives of students.”

All Montgomery County high school principals support SROs in school, according to past school board hearings. The Montgomery County Board of Education is still studying the issue.

SPEAKERS HAD TWO minutes each. Even County Executive Marc Elrich’s testimony, delivered by Caroline Sturgis, supporting the removal of SRO and replacing them with a team of mental health professionals was stopped mid sentence.

“As we consider this bill it is important to fully understand the experiences of those impacted by the SRO program,” said Sturgis.

Montgomery County Police Department reported 97 percent of the 420 SRO criminal arrests and civil infractions were initiated by school personnel, according to Elrich.

“There are disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion in MCPS for Black and Latino students,” said Sturgis.

Sturgis said Elrich is exploring a cluster model with administration, security, staff and police involved, so that a liaison officer patrols the school and surrounding community and checks in with schools at least once a day.

Councilmember Craig Rice has introduced a bill on building positive relationships with law enforcement in public schools (see related story).

Nancy Navarro has promised additional legislation to have a 21st-century solution on the issue.

But the students last Tuesday brought data, compelling data, according to Carol Cichowski, of the Women’s Democratic Club of Montgomery County.

“We find the data on the harmful effects of policing our students to be compelling. We strongly urge the council to make good on your commitment to racial equity and take action on the disparities we see here. Our children deserve better,” said Cichowski. “The arrests are generally paired with suspensions and referrals to juvenile services, a recipe for academic failure, dropping out and further involvement with the criminal justice system. A single arrest can have lifelong consequences for a student.”

“A single arrest can have lifelong consequences for a student.”

— Carol Cichowski, Women’s Democratic Club

Tiffany Kelly didn’t read notes for her testimony and, instead, spoke from her heart.

“There is not another study, there is not another story, there is nothing we can say that you have not heard. I am tired of this equity buzz word that is being tossed around. It is all smoke and mirrors and optics and that is what we specialize in,” she said.

“Please, be honest with me, but just be honest with yourselves, and let me know where you really stand, so I don’t come looking for help that I’ll never get. You will not hear us, you do not want to hear us, and I’m not giving another statistic. The only peace I have is the students who are on this call that give me hope for my future.”

What’s Next

The County Council must hold a public hearing on councilmembers Craig Rice and Sidney Katz’s bill to build positive relationships with law enforcements in public schools, which Rice introduced on Feb. 2, 2021. The Council’s public safety and education committees will address both bills in future worksessions before the full Board deliberates on the issue of school resource officers in schools.

The School Board has also said they want to engage in talks with the public and hope to give their recommendation by May.

Councilmember Nancy Navarro announced Feb. 2, 2021 that she hopes to introduce legislation that is a 21st-century solution to safety and student well-being.

In Their Own Words

“We should listen to students, educators and nurses, like myself, who have had negative interactions with School Resource Officers … Police officers have limited training to address children with complex education, health, social and emotional needs.

“The removal of SROs will benefit racial equity in our county. Data shows that students are best served by increasing staffing and allowing highly trained teachers, mental health professionals, counselors, school nurses and well-trained security teams to provide safe and healthy schools.” —Janeane Marks, Jewish United for Justice

“I represent not only myself and my organization but the voices of over 30 other student organizations who are advocating against the SRO program.

Our position comes from a place of fact and experience.” —Daniella Mehlek-Dawveed, Student, Montgomery County Against Brutality

“I ask you to remove police officers from schools because they cause harm and make our schools less safe.

“I represent children in Juvenile Court every day who are arrested by police officers in schools for charges that include disturbing school activities and other minor officers. Police officers in MCPS disproportionately target students of color and children with disabilities. Because the police are in schools, children are punished twice for behavioral incidents, first with a suspension and then with a court date. Even when there’s no arrest the experience of being policed in school can result in trauma and lack of school engagement.

“Instead of having police in schools, we should expand our mental health services and also our restorative justice programs to more effectively address the root of conflict and to empower our children to resolve problems without the involvement of police.” —Stephanie Joseph, Office of the Public Defender

“We believe the bill aims to provide a solution to the school to prison pipeline that is disproportionately impacting students of color here in Montgomery County.

“We believe that SROs are not a proper solution to the problems facing our students. The over $3 million that it costs the county to place SROs in our schools could easily be resources to be additional funding for mental health and counseling support. Especially because the data just isn’t clear that the presence of SROs actually makes schools safer.” —Ashanti Martinez, CASA

“The 2010 resolution advocated for the assignment of police officers to each high school but was silent on whether SROs should be physically placed inside each high school facility. We urge the Council to consider removing SROs from being inside the school building full time and we support the allocation of funds to mental health resources. While there are certainly positive examples between individual SROs and the schools to which they are assigned, there is sufficient evidence overall of the SRO program having had a disproportionate negative impact on our Black and Latino students and our students with disabilities that causes concern.

“We ask MCPS to engage to understand the perception of law enforcement more broadly and how an arrest or even a risk of an arrest and law enforcement presence can negatively affect student perceptions and performance.” —Carla Morris, MCCPTA Diversity, Equity & Inclusive Committee

“I have a great relationship with my SRO but I believe we need to do away with the program because it simply does not increase the safety of the school climate while double causing student harm. The SRO was bolstered as a response to the rise in mass shootings but no study has ever proven that SROs reduce mass shootings. At the same time SROs criminalize more minor infractions and students of color and students with disabilities.” —Avery Smedley, Students Toward Equitable Public Schools, student Einstein

“I can remember all the times that I’ve been walking in the Blair hallways without a pass or standing in the hallway on a phone call being completely unbothered while the security officers stop Black or brown students for doing the exact same things I was doing. It was clear to me discrepancies exist. … Students are detained and sometimes sent to court for minor offenses like school fights or drug possession, things so many teenagers do, but Black and brown and disabled teens are much more likely to be harshly punished for it.

“When faced with disciplinary issues, overworked and under resourced principals will turn to the most convenient solution. As long as we have police in schools, principals will turn to them in situations that don’t call for police intervention. But if we remove police from schools, we can create an environment where the wellbeing of all students is the top priority.” —Abby Kusmin, Blair High School

“I support this bill because I’ve seen the data and I’ve heard the testimony and based on that it’s clear that SROs are doing more harm than good. By keeping them in schools, we are prioritizing white families’ perceived safety over people of color’s lived experience.

“We can see that only [a small] percent of the arrests were for felonies, the rest were for more minor offenses or disorderly conduct, such as disruption or fighting, things that children really should not be arrested for at all.

“We need to be focused on students' mental health and why they do the things that they do, we need to show them ways to repair the damage that they’ve done, ways to practice self care and ways to communicate healthily with one another. We need them to be able to trust their school system so when they make a mistake they will not have to go through a traumatizing criminal experience.” —Hanan Miles, Sunrise Silver Spring

“Removing police from schools is a racial justice issue, and racial justice is one of the central values I have been taught through my Jewish education. We learned that isn’t enough to be neutral in the face of injustice. We have to be actively working against it.

“I noticed that students of color would get punished much more severely than white students who acted out in the same way. While white students might receive a verbal warning, students of color often receive detention even suspensions. I also recently learned that this type of unequal punishment often escalates even further, leading Black students to be arrested far more frequently than white students.” —Sidra Hoffman, Einstein High School, Bonimot Tzedek

“The pandemic has exacerbated mental health struggles that countless students face. I’ve done the research, I’ve spoken with students, I’ve seen the statistics. Alarming number of MCPS students are reporting terrible mental health with more than half of our students saying this pandemic has harmed their social mental well being. Psychologists all across the country are way up on their intake and we fall well short on the National Counseling Organization’s recommendations on the ratio of counselors and psychologists to students.” —David King, Walter Johnson High School

“We advance racial equity in public education by combatting the overuse of practices like suspension, expulsion and school policing that disproportionately target Black and brown students and push them into the criminal legal system. The Public Justice Center has represented many students in Montgomery County Public Schools in suspension, expulsion and Department of Juvenile Justice proceedings. The experiences of our clients demonstrate why police do not belong in schools.” —Renuka Rege, attorney, Public Justice Center

“There are disturbing and alarming statistics that enforce criminalization among underserved groups.

“Those funds must go into mental health and counseling services. We need to redistribute those funds toward essential social services that are critical to student development ...

“As a nursing student, I have learned that early detection and prevention is key to promoting good health. What we need to do is focus on preventing and detecting those issues that plague students' mental health and stopping issues before they escalate. We need to focus on helping the hurt within our students, not punishing them.” —Steve Park, Walter Johnson graduate

“The Maryland Safe to Learn Act mandates that police officers are assigned to schools, not inside schools. We have agreed that if we want to stop school shootings we need to have better mental health support not more firearms. Many teachers and students have expressed how unsafe police officers make them feel. Our schools should first and foremost be a place of education. Police-friendly communities can be built, but this does not require them to be in the building.” —Mauricio Quintero-Aviles, Northwest High School, MC Regional Student Government Association

“I am here to talk about another way that students with disabilities are negatively impacted in schools, and that’s through SROs. In order for SROs to appropriately address the needs of students with disabilities, they must understand the rights afforded to students under Section 504 and the ADA. And understand the potential obligation as school staff members to provide the necessary modifications and accommodations.

“You're asking SROs to play the role of an educator, a counselor and a law enforcement officer.” —Catherine Contreras, Wootton High School

“We have seen first hand students criminalized for non violent disability related behavior. The impacts of these interactions with SROs are far reaching and life altering. Research shows that only one instance of police contact increases the likelihood that a young person will have further involvement with the criminal justice system, will fall behind, or ultimately drop out of school. There are successful alternatives to the SRO model.” —Megan Berger, Disability Rights Maryland, attorney

“SROs have made Black students feel less safe due to over policing and racialized police violence. In Montgomery County, Black students have faced a disproportionate number of arrests by SROs, making up 45 percent of the arrests in 2018-2019 despite being only 22 percent of the student body. The racial discrepancy is not due to a change in behavior; black students misbehave at rates similar to their peers.

“Students with IEPs were 25 percent of school-based arrests even though they were only 12 percent of the school population.

“Proven strategies include restorative justice, trauma-based approaches, individualized special education and planning.” —Carlean Ponder, ACLU Montgomery County

“As the parent of an elementary school student, I understand we value the safety of our children more than anything. A lot of parents who look like me probably imagine that SROs are integral to that safety but in reality that is just not true. More and more we are learning that they don't make our schools safer. Of course, parents of our disabled students and students of color have been telling us this for a long time.” —Meghan Salmela, Parent

“Public safety should never be defined by the use of force or the threat of use of force yet that is the message we are sending children. When we send a school resource officer to respond to a student struggling to focus in the classroom, we are not supporting that child, we are criminalizing hunger or mental health or even childhood itself. And the harm is real.” —Michelle Whittaker, Parent

“How we spend our resources communicates what our values are. If we prioritize staffing police officers over guidance counselors and nurses we are communicating to our children that what we value is their compliance and obedience over their well being.” —Tara Dunderdale, Metro DC DSA Montgomery County Branch

“We all want school-aged children in Montgomery County to feel safe, that means to feel safe from police officers, too, which they’ve seen on TV and online abusing their power, including the tragic event that led to the death of George Floyd.” —Djawa Hall, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

“I was fortunate enough at my school to have an officer who builds bonds with students, but I know that is not the case at every single school.

SROs are in a school environment, they are not out in the workforce as real police officers. They are dealing with children and minors and they need to be trained to deal with children and minors and their emotions to be able to seem like an ally and not somebody who is against them.” —Djenebou Traore, John F. Kennedy High School

“What we are seeing with the SROs is the criminalization of students and the failure to provide support for students who need it the most. I firmly believe that this valuable funding of our schools should be directed to preventative methods, such as hiring more counselors, so we are guiding our youth on the right path the moment they enter our K-12 schools.” —Jason Wu, Poolesville High School