- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Schools across the country responded to the death last year of George Floyd by scaling back or eliminating campus police programs, but one majority Black suburban community in the D.C. area is bucking the trend.

The Prince George’s County Board of Education in Maryland voted in March to keep its 33 school resource officers after 82% of the 13,000 residents who responded to a survey said they believe the officers are “very important” (55%) or “important” (27%) to maintaining a safe teaching environment.

A spokesperson for the county police department told The Washington Times that armed officers “receive specialized training to work in a school environment and often serve as mentors for students.”

“The SROs are dedicated to the students at their assigned schools,” the spokesperson said in an email. “This was illustrated last year when COVID prevented traditional graduations [from] occurring and our SROs made it a point to be at their schools for cap and gown distribution and locker clean-out days as that would be the last time they would see the students whom they watched grow up over the years.”

The Prince George’s County population is almost 65% Black, according to the latest census. Education officials there are taking a different course as other school districts struggle to balance safety concerns with growing evidence that minority students suffer the harshest punishment for criminal misbehavior.

Floyd, who was Black, was killed in Minneapolis police custody in May 2020. The next month, the school board voted unanimously to end its resource officer program.

A Boston district last month suspended its program after police were called to deal with a 6-year-old. Los Angeles replaced some school resource officers this year with “climate coaches” on the recommendation of a student advocacy group.

Across the Potomac River from Prince George’s County, City Council members in Alexandria, Virginia, voted in May to abolish a decades-old school resource officer program.

The nearly $800,000 designated to fund the program, which employed six city police officers, will be redirected toward mental health and well-being resources for students.

Officials of Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland’s largest school district with more than 160,000 students, are at odds over what to do with their school resource officers.

The debate centers on whether those 23 officers should transition to “community resource officers,” who would patrol near but not inside their assigned schools.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich proposed the move during a county budget meeting in mid-March.

“The state requires us to have a response plan for the county schools,” Mr. Elrich said. “We’re going to take police officers, they will have beats that will include wider areas that would encompass the different school districts. They will not be stationed in the schools.”

The proposal, he said, complies with Maryland’s Safe to Learn Act of 2018. Under the law, a resource officer or “adequate local law enforcement coverage” must be provided to each school within the state’s 24 public education systems.

Because the law does not specify what constitutes “adequate” coverage, each jurisdiction establishes its own definition.

Mr. Elrich announced his proposal one month after the Montgomery County Council held a public hearing on a bill to abolish the school resource officer program and redirect its $3 million in funding toward mental health resources and training for school staff.

The bill’s co-sponsors, council members Will Jawando and Hans Riemer, pointed to statistics over the past four years that showed 50% of students arrested by the district’s resource officers were Black even though Black students account for less than 20% of the student population.

By eliminating school resource officers and shifting the program’s funds, the council members hope to reduce the disproportionate arrest rates, increase social and mental health resources for students and allow police to focus more on violent crime.

Mr. Jawando and Mr. Riemer do not support Mr. Elrich’s plan. “CROs are the proposed new SRO, stationed outside the school not inside. It’s not the change we are looking for,” Mr. Riemer tweeted last month.

Mr. Jawando told The Times in a phone interview that student groups involved with him also oppose the plan.

“The issue here is if you just move the police out of the school and still have them kind of patrolling the neighborhood around the school … they’re much more likely to be called in and used in the same way or a similar way that they were used in schools,” Mr. Jawando said.

Nonetheless, he said the county’s changes are “a microcosm of the larger debate” over police reform.

“This is really a bit of the larger reimagining [of] public safety and police role because a big part of that is getting police in their right function and out of what they shouldn’t be doing in schools,” he said.

• Emily Zantow can be reached at ezantow@washingtontimes.com.

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