© 2021 Maine Public
header.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Public Schools In A Maryland County Will Reopen Without Police Officers

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to stay in back-to-school mode a bit longer and talk to two people in Maryland who helped to make a significant change in the largest school system in the state. Montgomery County is just north of Washington, D.C. This year, the public schools in Montgomery County are operating without school resource officers on campus for the first time in almost 20 years. You may recall that school resource officers, or SROs, have been a flashpoint in the country's larger debate over policing. In the past, many people - political leaders, school administrators, parents - pushed for these officers, thinking it would make the schools safer for everybody. But the thinking among many has changed, and critics are now arguing that having armed police officers in the halls of high schools and middle schools is unnecessary and intimidating, especially for students of color.

Last year, student activists in Montgomery County pressured lawmakers to rethink the SRO model of policing their schools, and it worked. I'm here with two guests who are part of that process. Julia Angel is a senior at Richard Montgomery High School and a co-founder of the student group MoCo Against Brutality. Julia, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JULIA ANGEL: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And Craig Rice is a Montgomery County councilmember. He helped to create the SRO model for Maryland schools two decades ago, but he has since changed his mind and has been recently involved in making recommendations for replacing armed officers in school. Councilman Rice, welcome to you as well. Thank you for joining us.

CRAIG RICE: Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it.

MARTIN: So, Julia, let me start with you. You are a senior. Congrats.

ANGEL: Thank you.

MARTIN: And as we mentioned, school resource officers have been a fixture in Montgomery County Public Schools for almost 20 years. So that would be - right - your entire school career, right? So...

ANGEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: So what made you and the other student groups who pushed for this change want to see something different? Is there something specific you could point to that made you say this is what has to happen?

ANGEL: I think a lot of us got involved in this work to defund in policing and reinvest in communities at a time when a lot of people were really frustrated and angry with what we were seeing on national news with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. And I was talking with a lot of other students and teachers and young people in the community who had really negative experiences with SROs and with other police in Montgomery County, and we really started to dig deeper into a lot of the data that was showing the disproportionate arrest rates of Black and Latinx students in Montgomery County. And we realized that this program really isn't effective, and it's doing so much harm, especially to communities of color and to disabled communities and LGBTQ-plus communities. And that was - this was something that needed to change.

MARTIN: So, Councilman Rice, I'm glad we have a chance to talk to you because, as I mentioned, you were a state delegate in the '90s, when you helped to create the school resource officer program. So what changed your mind? Because I know that you were a strong advocate of this program for years...

RICE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Even after people started to complain about it. What changed your mind?

RICE: We listened. We listened to students like Julia who said, look, I'm being negatively impacted by having this officer because the stories that I see, although I may not have individually experienced a school resource officer doing something to me, all I see on TV and all I hear from other students are instances in which these things are happening and these negative stories about police officers and their interactions with primarily people of color, primarily young, were things that were heavy on our students' minds. And so what we have to do as elected leaders is understand that while we're leaning with the best intentions, what we also need to do is take a step back and listen when our children are telling us that, hey, this is not something that's working for us right now because we are in a different place, we are in a different space, and we don't feel as though this is still a program that's keeping us safe.

MARTIN: So, Julia, I'm wondering if there are any students who said, you know what? This makes me feel unsafe. I feel like there should be somebody, a police presence in the schools. And what did you say to them?

ANGEL: You know, eliminating an armed police officer from being on campus is not eliminating school safety in any way. We still have security teams that are there to keep us safe. And, I mean, data has shown that school resource officers and police in schools generally are largely ineffective at preventing gun violence or gang recruitment on campuses. So I think that's one of the things that we've been trying to work with other people to have those open conversations and really talk about imagining school safety without policing.

MARTIN: I would like to know - a phrase that we've heard a lot over this year is defund the police, and this has become kind of a hot-button political issue. After working on this issue together, the students together with the elected adults, I'm just interested in whether you think this is a useful phrase. Is this a useful way to think about this, to talk about this? Julia, maybe I'll start with you. Do you think defund the police is a helpful way to talk about this?

ANGEL: Well, I do think that, you know, what part of what our coalition is working towards is defunding the police but also reinvesting in communities. And I think that second part is what gets ignored a lot of the times because what we're calling for and what I think all of us want is to make our communities safer and more equitable for every single person. And so that's why we're really pushing towards using a lot of the funding that may have previously gone into policing and what we view as criminalization to mental health support services, other wraparound services that support the community in more proactive ways. And so I think that, you know, defunding the police is part of that for a lot of people. It's part of that vision. But what's equally if not more important is the reinvesting in our communities aspect.

MARTIN: Councilmember, before I let you go, I want to hear from you on that question, too. What's your take on defund the police? Is this a useful way to think about this, based on your experience, or what do you think?

RICE: When it comes to the defund the police piece, I'm actually a little bit more adamant in terms of not liking that terminology, and let me tell you why. All people, and especially our people of color, especially our people who are in lower socioeconomic status in a lot of our neighborhoods deserve protection. And so it shouldn't be that just in our white, affluent communities, that they're afforded police protection and in our communities of color that we say, no, we're not going to have folks there. We have to revamp. We have to have police reform and reimagining. We have to hold police accountable. And we also have to make sure they're working for us. Everybody who works hard every single day and puts their tax dollars into Montgomery County's coffers deserve to have a force that continues to keep them safe and doesn't abuse them. We've got to fix that. I can't just throw it away and say, you know what, we're just going to give up on that part. No. We have to make sure that it works for everyone.

MARTIN: That is Montgomery County Councilmember Craig Rice. We also spoke with Julia Angel. She's a high school senior and co-founder of MoCo Against Brutality, one of the student groups that successfully lobbied lawmakers, including Councilmember Rice, to remove police officers from public schools in Montgomery County starting this year. Thank you both so much for talking with us. You know, I do hope we'll talk again. I'd love to check in at the end of the school year and see how things have proceeded.

RICE: Absolutely - would love it.

ANGEL: Yeah. Thank you.

RICE: Julia, thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDENCY'S "MUSICA PARA PRACTICAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.