County leaders say they don’t plan to return to having police officers stationed on school campuses, even after some serious incidents that required police help and mounting pressure from some parents.

Montgomery County Public School hallways sat empty as students took virtual classes during the first 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic. During this pause in in-person instruction, county officials and the school board debated the future of the district’s school resource officer (SRO) program.

Ultimately, County Executive Marc Elrich pulled funding for the program and implemented a program in which police, called “community engagement officers,” are assigned to and patrol specific geographic areas around schools, but they are not stationed inside buildings.

In June, Arlington County, Va., like Montgomery County, decided to remove school resource officers from schools. Nationally, dozens of districts have either decreased funding from their school officer program, or eliminated them entirely, according to a report from Education Week, a national news site covering education.

In the “community engagement officer” model, officers are not called directly when there’s a problem in their assigned schools, but can be dispatched to respond.  

The decision was praised by those who called for the end of the SRO program because of data that, consistent with national trends, showed Black students and students in special education programs were more likely to be arrested.

Others said the decision didn’t go far enough to limit police interactions with students.

It’s unclear whether “serious incidents” involving school campuses have actually been on the rise or not, compared to before the pandemic. Montgomery County Public Schools states that “events may be reported as a serious incident if they result in or lead to any incident resulting in death or serious injury of any person on an MCPS site or while conducting MCPS business; and potential or actual disruption of the planned school day,” along with other situations, according to a school safety and security report from MCPS.

From Sept. 1, 2019 to Dec. 31, 2019, there were 1,489 serious incidents in Montgomery County Public Schools, and 443 of those involved police. School resource officers were still in schools at that point — before the coronavirus pandemic closed schools in Montgomery County and nationwide.

MCPS officials could not immediately provide how many serious incidents there were since Sept. 1, 2021, and how many of those involved police, under the new “community engagement officer” model. So it’s unknown if the number of incidents has increased. 

Montgomery County Police Department officials could not immediately provide how many serious incidents they’ve responded to or been involved with during those two time periods. 

In an interview, Elrich said some of his decision about removing school resource officers, but keeping police stationed in cluster areas around schools, was tied to what state law requires.

“The school system actually has to make an agreement with the police on how they’re going to provide police response. That’s a state requirement,” Elrich said. “And the school system was able to work with the program that would keep police in the districts where the schools are, but not in the schools themselves, so if they need someone, they’re available.”

But some have criticized the decision to remove school resource officers, saying it puts students and employees at greater risk by increasing police response time when there’s an incident. Critics also believe having SROs on campus might deter some students from acting out at all. 

Lee Holland, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, the county’s police union, said in an interview that the relationships students had with SROs often helped authorities learn if a weapon, such as a knife or a gun, has been taken to school.

“Most times, when you build a relationship with somebody within the school, it being a police officer or not, you feel comfortable talking to that person,” Holland said. “You’re going to tell them something if you think that’s gonna be a problem. And that’s what our school resource officers used to have. And unfortunately, that’s being ripped apart because they took us out of the schools.”

A look at recent incidents

The issue of SROs and school safety has become a hot issue among students, parents and administrators after multiple incidents at various schools in recent months. 

In October, a football game was disrupted and canceled after a series of fights at a football game at Seneca Valley High School. In early November, police arrested a 10th-grader at Montgomery Blair High School after he was accused of stabbing another student in a parking lot outside the school.

Weeks later, a 15-year-old student at Northwood High School turned himself in to police after officers said they found ammunition and that he might have taken a gun to school. 

The incidents caused parents, students and other interested parties to either call for the reinstatement of SROs, or for more investment in mental health resources for students to prevent such incidents.

MCPS has been criticized by some for years for a lack of adequate mental health resources for students. Before the pandemic, counselor positions at middle and high schools in Montgomery County had a student-to-staff ratio of 250-to-1.

In every recent budget, funds have been allocated for a handful of new counselors or psychologists, but some believe it hasn’t been enough to make a tangible difference in the district.  

Advocates, county leaders and many students say incorporating more of those mental health supports and preventative measures is needed to quell problems before they start.  

“School resource officers aren’t going to prevent these issues. They’re just the ones there when it happens,” said Carter Musheno, the student body president at Northwood High School. “We don’t need to entertain the question of ‘When this happens, then they’re there.’ We need to eliminate it from being an option.”  

Students and administrators at Northwood met in the days following an incident in which a 15-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly bringing ammunition to campus.

The school was in lockdown, then in a “shelter in place” protocol for the majority of the day. It was scary, Musheno said, but he thinks most students still don’t believe reinstating the SRO program is the answer.  

Instead, they’ve set up informal weekly “table talks” in which students can meet with student government leaders and counselors to talk and eat snacks. They hope MCPS and the county government will see the “dramatic example” of the first months of the year and work quickly to hire more counselors, psychologists and social workers.  

School officials have told the County Council and other officials in recent months they’re working to hire 50 social workers, but it has been tough to fill the positions, because of overall demand and other factors.

Still, some believe that the decision to pull SROs out of schools was a mistake.

Stephen Austin, a former candidate for the Board of Education, recently started an online petition calling on the County Council and Board of Education to reinstate SROs.

Within hours, the petition had around 700 signatures. Through Thursday afternoon, more than 3,200 people had signed.

Austin wrote in a text message on Thursday that he planned to introduce his petition formally to Montgomery County Public Schools and the County Council in the coming weeks.

Austin, who now lives in Frederick County but has stayed tuned in to MCPS issues, said in an interview that he started the petition in part because of his prior activism, and because he’s heard from many MCPS parents and teachers who opposed the county’s decision to remove school resource officers from schools.

He noted that every high school principal has supported keeping police in schools.

Austin is not against more mental health support for students. Inadequate access and a shortage of counselors which was a problem before the pandemic, he said. But officials “cut the SRO program without providing the solution that they said would be put in place,” he said.

Holland said the police union office gets calls from parents concerned about school safety and want SROs back. Holland and others tell them that it isn’t their decision on whether to have them.

“I think if you took a poll in this county, if it was a referendum on school resource officers, a majority of the parents would want a school resource officer in their school rather than not,” Holland said.

In response, Elrich said it would be an interesting poll to take.

“I don’t know. You’d probably end up with a lot of households split between their children and their parents,” Elrich said. 

What lies ahead?

As school district officials and county leaders wrestle with school safety issues, many expressed the same idea: Rushing to judgment and reversing the decision to remove SROs from schools would not be smart.

Brenda Wolff, the president of the Board of Education, said in an interview that she understands parents’ concerns because of recent incidents, but the district needs more mental health support to address the underlying issues.

Many students are returning to school after being “cooped up” at home because of the pandemic, and it’s not clear that school resource officers would have prevented every incident, she said.

“Safety is our highest priority. I do understand concerns, but I think they’re getting out a little bit ahead of the situation,” Wolff said about opponents. “We really have to take a look at what’s going on, how we can support students, and whether or not we need to make adjustments.”

In an interview, County Council Member Tom Hucker said it’s important to recognize that the question of having police officers in schools has been not only in Montgomery County, but nationwide. More mental health support is needed in schools, but so are more school security officers, who patrol schools but are not armed like SROs, he said.

He agreed with Wolff that students were dealing with isolation for more than 18 months of the pandemic, and tremendous challenges.

“Our students have been through an unprecedented amount of stress and anxiety, for a large portion of their lives,” Hucker said last month.

He added that one of his kids, who turned 8 in November, has spent a large portion of his educational life in a virtual environment.

“It’s about a quarter of his life or a third of his life, that, all he remembers is virtual learning, and the sort of disorder that that produced,” Hucker said. “And that’s true of our high school students, as well, on a much greater level in some ways.” 

Elrich said he’s not against more security officers in schools, but emphasized that the Board of Education has final say over that. And he believes the main issue is that more mental health support is needed throughout schools.

“The whole idea of counselors in the schools or more psychologists or social workers who aren’t tied to a desk and appointments, but are available in the school, in the same way an SRO would be available to a student … it’s probably a good thing,” Elrich said.

But Holland said SROs are an invaluable asset to public schools, and a key part of addressing school safety and preventing violent incidents.

“People are 100% right that SROs can’t stop everything, but there is a better chance of it being stopped with an SRO there than not stopped,” Holland said.

Austin, the former Board of Education candidate, agreed. He added that even though some feel school resource officers might make students feel unsafe, incidents like ones that happened in recent months can’t be overlooked.

“Students don’t feel safe when they’re on lockdown, either, so it’s a sticky situation. But in my mind, you’re less likely to see the level of serious incidents if you have SROs than with none,” Austin said.  

For Musheno, the student body president at Northwood, mental health support must be a part of any solution. 

Musheno said there are many challenges. One is that high school students may not be as emotionally mature as their age, given the isolation of virtual learning during the pandemic. And even though principals address these issues, regulations, rules and policies can hamper their ability to do so, he added.

Musheno said it’s elected officials and other school and county leaders can’t lose sight of one point when discussing school safety: What do students want?

“I definitely think the recent weeks have been a dramatic example of violence, and these questions of … ‘Are these students safe?’ And things like that,” Musheno said in November, shortly after the aforementioned incidents. “I certainly think this media attention is garnering a lot of attention from the changemakers, the policymakers on the Board of Education. And I think a lot of people are looking toward the students, which is exactly what they should be doing.”

Staff writer Dan Schere contributed to this story. 

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com. Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com

Caitlynn Peetz

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com