‘All hands on deck’: Montgomery County officials try to address school violence

Montgomery County, Maryland, school and police officials briefed council members on plans to deal with school violence and student well-being.

The briefing before the council’s Education and Culture Committee and its Public Safety Committee included information on proposed changes to the current memorandum of understanding (MOU) that outlines the role of police in schools.

Part of the discussion focused on the evolution of programs involving a police presence in and around schools.

In the past, each high school had a student resource officer (SRO) assigned to work within a specific school building.

In the current MOU, police are now referred to as community engagement officers, or CEOs, and are assigned to a school cluster, responding to schools when police are called, as in the recent shooting at Magruder High School in Rockville.

Ruschelle Reuben, chief of teaching, learning and schools for Montgomery County Public Schools, gave a presentation on the role of CEOs that said there should be no “disproportionate impact on students of color and other student groups,” and that consideration should be given to a proposal to ensure that police working as CEOs have “demilitarized” uniforms, instead adopting a “plainclothes detective style” of dress.

Council member Will Jawando said he continued to have concerns about the presence of police in schools.

One of the points school officials made was that under the current MOU, school discipline is not to be carried out by police officers.

“Presence doesn’t equal discipline. I just want to be very clear about that,” said Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight.

But Jawando pushed back on that, noting that there had been discussion about increasing the visibility of CEOs in schools, including establishing offices for their use in school buildings. Jawando said under the former SRO program, “Police were not supposed to be involved in discipline, but we know that line was crossed. And that was something we always needed to improve.”

Jawando said he did believe there is a role for police in schools — when presenting information on public safety in the community, for example. But, he said, “I have significant concerns about armed police, in school settings with students, as seen as a way to achieve higher safety in those schools.”

Council President Gabe Albornoz had a different take on the role of police in schools. He said he had firsthand knowledge of cases where an SRO helped quash situations that could have escalated.

He also mentioned the late Blanca Kling, a civilian who for decades worked in the Montgomery County Police Department as a liaison to the Latino community. Calling Kling “an angel in every sense of the word,” Albornoz suggested incorporating that kind of approach for engagement, using someone who would not necessarily be a uniformed officer, but who could serve as a link between communities and the police.

Council member Craig Rice, who had championed the previous SRO program, referred back to one of his own statements when he had a change of heart and said he no longer believed that the “daily presence of police in our schools in an enforcement capacity fosters a safe environment.”

Today, he said, “We can now see a better system that allows for an officer to serve in a non-enforcement capacity, assisting our school safety and security, and ensuring that our community is safe.”

Rice likened the role of police serving in schools to having a fire extinguisher in a kitchen. “You never pay attention to it until you need it.”

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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