Montgomery Co. executive, police chief: No return to school resource officer program

A day after Magruder High School, in Montgomery County, Maryland, returned to class in the wake of last Friday’s shooting that left a student in critical condition, the county executive and police chief fielded questions about school security in a briefing Wednesday.

“This is a harrowing event to say the least,” County Executive Marc Elrich said. “But we are not sitting by idly, and we are working with the school system to take appropriate steps.”

Police Chief Marcus Jones said the 15-year-old student who was shot is still in critical condition. Steven Alston Jr., 17, also a Magruder student, is being charged as an adult and held without bond.

Both officials said the recently scrapped school resource officer program, which stationed a law enforcement officer inside each county high school for most of the day, wasn’t coming back, but each said the community engagement officer program, which requires “response but not presence” in Jones’ words, could be adjusted if the school system, led by interim superintendent Dr. Monifa McKnight, asks for changes.

Jones said he would work with McKnight to go over the school system’s security needs, and whether any modifications are needed.

“We are working with MCPS to identify what would be a best plan,” Jones said. “We are not planning right now to go back to the old SRO program.”

Elrich said McKnight had been “very clear” that the SRO program wouldn’t return, and added, “No one’s produced any argument that an SRO would have produced anything different in this incident. They’re not personal bodyguards. There’s no panacea [where] if there was an SRO there’s no way this would have happened.”

The county executive said there was an increased police presence at Montgomery County schools this week, but he called that a gesture “to help build a level of confidence and comfort” and not “a strategic, defensive move.”

“Some of these problems have bedeviled us for a while, with and without SROs,” Elrich said, pointing out that SRO programs were developed in response to mass shootings, which Friday’s incident was not.

“They’re not a magic security blanket,” the executive said, adding that he’ll support whatever decision the school system and police arrive at together.

“The way I look at it is, they’re the client,” Jones said. “They are the ones who decide and say to us, like any other community would want certain services within their community, ‘How do [we] work with the police in order to provide those services?’ That’s what we’re doing.”

Dr. Earl Stoddard, the county’s assistant chief administration officer, pointed out that the 25 community engagement officers comprise about 10% of the school system’s total security force of 254.

About 4,800 people have signed an online petition calling for the return of the program.

After the shooting in the bathroom Friday afternoon, Alston, the suspect, was reportedly found in a classroom with other students after about a two-hour search. The gun was in the room, disassembled, the police said.

Jones said Wednesday that Alston was likely brought into the classroom by a teacher during the normal lockdown procedure, in which teachers scan the hallways for students who aren’t in a room and bring them in.

“At that very moment, no one knew — not even us … exactly who was the shooter in this particular circumstance,” Jones said. “I would probably guess that this wasn’t the only student that was pulled into a classroom during the lockdown, who might have been lingering in the hallway.”

The chief didn’t foresee any legal ramifications for the other students who were in the Magruder bathroom during the shooting who didn’t report it. He said the school system might look at whether “there’s a lesson learned,” and that police could talk to students “about civic responsibility.”

He added that at this time, there was no indication that any laws were broken by a friend who reportedly helped Alston assemble the gun, but that as more is learned, including the friend’s age, that could change.

Ghost guns

The gun allegedly used in the shooting was a ghost gun – one assembled from parts bought online, without a serial number. Elrich said Alston received the components of his ghost gun in three parcels sent from three companies, and that it’s the fifth ghost gun found in a Montgomery County public school this academic year.

While regular guns have to be shipped to a licensed dealer, and buyers have to pass the appropriate background checks when they arrive to pick them up, gun parts, which can be assembled into ghost guns, are unrestricted.

“It’s such an obvious and glaring loophole in our laws that needs to be closed,” Elrich said, indicating he supported a bill in the General Assembly that aims to do that.

Elrich said the shooting, as well as an increase in violence county-wide, is a sign of the times: “There are moments when it seems like society is coming apart at the seams.”

“Dealing with COVID for two years has taken a real toll on people,” he added. “It’s taken a real toll on relationships; it’s sent people spiraling into poverty and desperation; it’s made life as normal, really difficult, particularly for people whose lives were stressful to begin with. And I think that we’re all painfully aware of the consequences of this.”

Teen found dead in Germantown

Jones had further information on the case of 17-year-old Jailyn Jones, of Germantown, a Northwestern High School student found dead on Grotto Lane Monday.

The chief said the death is being treated as a homicide. While the autopsy is still being conducted, Chief Jones said, police have “an indication that this young man, unfortunately, was murdered.”

The police are interviewing students, teachers and staff at Northwestern to learn more about the circumstances leading up to the boy’s death. His mother has reportedly said that her son was bullied.

Between the Magruder shooting, the Germantown death, the death of a Wheaton volunteer firefighter in a house fire in Baltimore and declining but still-elevated COVID-19 rates, Elrich said, “I don’t think I have to tell you this has been a really difficult week for the county.”

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Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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