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A group of Montgomery County Public Schools community members said during a virtual forum Wednesday evening that the district’s former school resource officer program kept schools safer and better connected with their communities than the current model of placing officers in schools.

At the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year, MCPS implemented its Community Engagement Officer (CEO) program, in which officers patrolled schools within a cluster but did not remain inside school buildings. However, a new memorandum of understanding between schools and county police implemented this spring states that the CEOs will have a designated space near the front office of a cluster’s high school or administrative area and will check in at schools in each cluster.

Both iterations of the CEO program differ from the former SRO program, in which officers were stationed in high schools full time. The SRO program came under fire starting a few years ago over community concerns that minority students were being disciplined at disproportionately high rates.

The debate surrounding officers in public schools has continued following a spike in criminal activity in and around schools in the county this year, including a Jan. 21 shooting at Col. Zadok Magruder High School in January that critically injured one student. The nonprofit organization Community Partners for Public Safety hosted Wednesday’s forum as a way of discussing the importance of having officers in schools.

During Wednesday’s forum, parent Dana Noga said she was filled with anxiety throughout the day of the shooting as she thought about her son being in the school while it was locked down.

“Panic was setting in not knowing where he was,” she said.

Noga said even though the Magruder shooting wasn’t as serious as others that have occurred in places including Connecticut, Florida and Texas in the past decade, she can empathize with the parents of children in those schools.

“….. I understand what they must have been going through, wondering, hoping, praying through the anxiety, the fear, the sheer terror of the situation,” she said.

Noga pointed to the recent rise in crime involving youths and suggested that it might be time to reconsider returning to the school resource officer model.

“No one will ever be able to say an SRO would have changed the situation. We can’t turn back the hands of time to find out. However, this last school year we saw an increase in violent incidents in the school,” she said.

 Wednesday’s speakers included Afsara Nowrin, a Quince Orchard High School graduate who spoke about her relationship with former school resource officer Joe Lowery.

“One morning of my freshman year in high school, I felt very upset because I could not express the emotions that I had bottled up. And I had [become] a danger to myself,” she said.

Nowrin said that five police officers came to her house that morning, but none could “get the detrimental item out of her possession.”

“In the midst of all that chaos, one of the officers asked what school I went to, to which I replied ‘Quince Orchard High School.’ And they asked if I knew Officer Lowery,” she said.

Lowery ended up coming to her house along with Nowrin’s school counselor to resolve the situation. Nowrin said there needs to be a spotlight on the positive impact SROs have had on students, such as her, over the years.

“My story is just one of them, and I urge people to see both sides of the story,” she said.

Lowery, who participated in the forum, said it’s a misperception that SROs are involved in carrying out school discipline, and that previous memorandum of understandings specifically stated that officers were not to be involved in discipline.

Lowery, who retired in October after 33 years with the county police department, said an important aspect of the SRO program was that officers built relationships in the community. He said Quince Orchard High presented a challenge because it is in Gaithersburg, but is covered by the county’s Rockville police district. Still, officers assigned to the Gaithersburg district would communicate with him.

“When those Gaithersburg officers would have incidents happen on the weekend, and then knew there was a chance it would fall into the school’s lap the next morning, they knew they could call me morning, noon or night,” he said. “And I had that intimate knowledge [where] I could call the principals, I could call the counselors or whoever was affected. And we could have a gameplan before school even started that Monday morning.”

Lowery said the new CEO program does not put officers in the best position to create relationships with the community because one CEO must serve multiple schools.

“You have to have relationships, and that’s the key metric that’s missing with the CEOs. You’re getting service, but it’s not the relationships that makes the program from the SRO days so effective,” he said.

Lowery criticized county officials for their lack of recognition of the importance of the SRO model.

“I scratch my head and I wonder, especially after what happened at [Magruder], where are our politicians? Why have they not gone to the schools and spent a day there and actually talked to the kids instead of trying to get sound bites for the media?” he said.

Magruder Principal Lee Evans, who also participated in the forum, said he also believes it’s important for officers to be in the community and understand the family situations of students.

“We need people who are in the communities and people who have contact with the kinds of things that occur, that for whatever reasons, can be dangerous [and] cause harm. So I think there’s a significant role to play in this partnership,” he said.

Evans said there is a misperception that having SROs in schools contributes to students getting caught up in a so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

“It starts not with school discipline, and certainly not with the SROs. This has been going on for decades,” he said. “It has a lot to do with whether or not we have the ability to make hope happen in the lives of children at the very earliest level of school, so that they’re willing to take the time to invest in themselves in school, so that they have options and opportunities that are far away from the evils of society.”

Evans and others during Wednesday’s discussion said they recognize that there is a national debate about policing that has been happening for several years, but it shouldn’t mean the end of officers in schools.

“I fully understand the perils of social injustice, and there’s a lot left to do with that,” Evans said. “But we do ourselves a disservice when we politicize things and don’t get to the root cause of things because we don’t dig down deep enough and make the changes in the lives of children that’s gonna make a difference.”

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

Dan Schere

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com.