Not all Washington, D.C.-area schools began the new school year with school resource officers – a change from previous years.
A review by the News4 I-Team revealed some communities have fully withdrawn police officers from their local schools for the 2021-22 school year, while others have increased their forces and pledged to further bolster their school resource officer programs.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, the I-Team sought school resource officer staffing levels in more than a dozen of the region’s largest school systems. In at least three of those communities – Arlington County, Virginia; Alexandria, Virginia; and Montgomery County, Maryland – all school resource officers were removed from school buildings to start this school year. Yet in neighboring communities, including Loudoun County, Virginia; Frederick County, Maryland; and Charles County, Maryland, the number of school resource officers is rising.
The programs came under increasing scrutiny in some communities amid the year of racial justice protests in 2020, sparking criticisms from some government officials and students that in-school uniformed police officers could contribute to a “school-to-prison pipeline.” But in some neighboring communities, government leaders and students have championed the program, citing it as a tool for protecting against school violence, while improving relationships between young people and police.
“It's been a program that since I came on board in 2016 that has been built upon and continues to provide safety and security to our school children,” said Fauquier County Sheriff Bob Mosier, whose department is maintaining its force of 11 officers for another school year in 2021-22. The department recently supplemented its resource officer program with additional private security staff as well.
At Fauquier High School, senior Grayson Kramer said the presence of Officer Robert Settle is reassuring.
“I know (officers) have a big responsibility back watching all these kids in this school,” Kramer said.
Settle said he bears responsibility for, among other things, preventing a violent event in the school.
“It's sort of like having a fire extinguisher,” he said. “You don't really need it until you have a fire.”
School resource officers in many local communities also are called upon to teach some safety lessons or classes and are expected to serve as mentors or liaisons between police departments and young people.
But there is growing criticism in some communities that the program has limited ability to strengthen those relationships.
“I think the premise of it is that this, the harm or the bad relationship between communities of color and police, is something that can be solved by just placing school resource officers into the school building, and I think that's not true,” said Kyson Taylor, a high school senior in Rockville.
Taylor led student efforts to remove school resource officers in Montgomery County. Taylor said police officers, including some school resource officers, give disproportionate scrutiny to Black and brown students.
“This is a person that's part of a force that targeted people like me for centuries,” he said.
Montgomery County, which had grown its school resource officer program over the past two decades, eliminated the in-school officers to begin the 2021-22 school year. The county government opted to shift officers off school campuses, but in range to respond to emergencies.
County Council member Will Jawando urged for the reassignment of school officers, arguing for a larger investment in mental health professionals in the county’s approximately 200 school buildings.
“We have one of the worst counselor-to-student ratios in the region, one of the worst nurse-to-student ratios in the region,” Jawando said. “Every high school doesn't have a school psychologist. These are things that cost money that we need to invest in.”
“While the existing SRO program is being eliminated by the (county executive), it is the goal of the CE and Chief (Marcus) Jones that officers who respond to service-calls at schools still receive the 40-hour block of school safety training that is offered by the Maryland Center for School Safety,” a Montgomery County police spokeswoman said. “All current SROs have attended the training.”
In Arlington County, the school board voted to eliminate in-school police.
“ACPD is committed to actively engaging with Arlington’s youth and is in the process of developing a new Youth Outreach Unit,” an Arlington County police spokesperson said. “The unit will be engaged in the community, building relationships and partnering with organizations and stakeholders to support youth initiatives and implement education campaigns to help keep them safe.”
But in other nearby communities, the school resource programs are seeing only slight reductions or are increasing the presence of officers in buildings.
The I-Team sent questions to several local police departments about the futures and the roles of their school resources officers.
In Prince William County, a police spokesman said the police department “is aware that elected officials in other Northern Virginia jurisdictions have voted to eliminate school resource officer programs. PWCPD has historically run an SRO program based on best practices and has an excellent communicative relationship with the PWC Schools.”
“Our SROs only become involved in the disciplinary process, in accordance with Virginia Law, when a student has committed a felony, threatens or creates a health and safety crisis, or when a victim reports a crime they want investigated,” a Fairfax County police spokesperson said. “SROs do not become involved in routine disruptions or violation of school rules.”
A Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department spokesman said the agency’s “primary goal is to ensure the safety of all students and faculty who attend our Loudoun schools. Our SROs also act as protectors, mentors and teachers and inspire students to be successful members of society.”
D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee told the I-Team, “MPD expects to continue to have a program that works with school staff to create a safe and supportive environment for students.”
A spokesman for Frederick County Sheriff Office said the county “SRO Unit consistently receives positive feedback from the public and FCPS employees. Our mission remains the same and is consistent with the overall mission and vision of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office.”
“Change is the only thing constant in law enforcement, and the SRO position is one that is continuing to evolve as the expectations of society as a whole change as well,” a Prince George’s County police spokesperson said. “The goals and objectives of the SRO program remain unchanged, which are to provide a safer school environment, working closely with students, school administrators and school security to ensure a safer learning environment, while keeping in mind the best interests of the student, staff and the general public.”
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, shot by Steve Jones and Jeff Piper, edited by Steve Jones, and produced by Rick Yarborough.