In the first year of all county public high schools having a police officer in resident, the Montgomery County Council still sees room for improvement.
The School Resource Officer (SRO) program, which places trained officers in schools for conflict resolution and enforcement, started in Montgomery County Public Schools in 2003-2004 school year on a smaller scale. The system added 10 more officers in fiscal 2015. During the 2013-2014 year, there were 203 arrests, 25 of which were during August and September. There were 32 arrests made during the same period this year. SRO arrests hardly ever result in a conviction on someone’s record, according to Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger.
But arrests are not the main goal of the program, police and school officials said at a council committee briefing on Oct. 13. In 2012, the SROs conducted 278 interventions with youth; that rose to more than 1,000 in the 2013-2014 school year, according to MCPD Assistant Chief Darryl McSwain.
“We believe that that’s a relatively low number considering the number of contacts we make, the size of the school system itself … One of the things that we’ve stressed over the last two years is not so much arrests, but things such as mediations and interventions,” McSwain said.
McSwain said the police have altered the selection process to include a principal, a 40-hour training session with SROs that includes mediation techniques and the relationship with MCPS and centralized SRO reporting.
In the 2013-2014 school year, 91 arrests were related to marijuana and 31 were weapons offenses. Councilmember Cherri Branson (D-5) said with the recent state decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana for those over 21, students could feel even more lax about it.
Manger, who was in favor of the state law, agreed that students could see it that way, but would quickly learn the attitude toward marijuana for those under age has not changed.
“If the community thinks that we’re going to turn a blind eye to young people having marijuana, we’re not,” Manger said.
He said in addition to the 91 arrests involving marijuana, there were probably 10 times more cases where the SROs confiscated the drugs and counseled the student rather than arresting them.
The council’s public safety and education committee members said they were happy to see successes, but still felt there was a lot of room for improvement.
Council President Craig Rice said principals have to make time for their SROs because the relationship is so important to the SRO’s success.
“We’ve all been managers. It’s our duty, both sides, to make that relationship positive for the beneficiaries, which are our kids. Or if the relationship isn’t going to work, then that person needs to go so I don’t want to see that as an excuse,” he said.
Although Rice suggested a standardized practice for how often principals have to meet with the SROs, MCPS Associate Superintendent of High Schools Christopher Garran said that would not really fix the problem.
“We’re in different places in different schools…but there isn’t a school in our system where the principal and the SRO are not communicating. They are,” Garran said. “We could create one model, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to do it. Our thing should be to guarantee that the communication is taking place on a regular basis.”
Councilmembers Roger Berliner (D-1) and Marc Elrich (D-At Large) both worried about the larger problem behind the need for SROs: the culture at schools.
“It is fundamentally about conflict resolution and creating an environment in the school system in which people feel safe and have the tools themselves to come together and understand how to resolve conflicts in ways that are not violent,” Berliner said.
In response, school officials pointed to the new code of conduct implemented this year that focuses less on suspensions and more on conflict resolution. The memorandum of understanding for the SROs also focuses on mediation and resolution techniques other than arrest more explicitly than in previous years.
Elrich, who used to be a teacher, brought up how negative methods of conflict resolution start in elementary school. He remembered the harmful effects of excusing aggressive behavior on the playground with a statement like “boys will be boys.”
“There’s a line between playing hard and playing mean and we need to be very clear that we’re not going to tolerate that,” he said.