In 1998, faced with an abrupt increase in homicides and violent crimes involving youth, Prince George’s County assigned the first school resource officer to Eleanor Roosevelt High School. Later that same year, the second school resource officer was assigned to Northwestern High School.

More than 20 years later, there are currently 33 school resource officers and 66 school security staff members assigned to work in high schools across the county who have the ability to make arrests. 

Sparked by nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and activism, the discussion to remove school resource officers has gained traction in Prince George’s County. In September, the county’s Board of Education tabled a proposal for the second time to remove school resource officers after tabling it in June. The board continued the conversation about school resource officers on March 1.

“We need to do some drastic things to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Raaheela Ahmed, District 5 Board of Education member. “It’s significant to seeing the decriminalization of our youth and particularly our youth of color in the county.” 

Ahmed has spearheaded the “Protect Our Students Proposal,” which includes amendments to Prince George’s County Public Schools CEO Monica Goldson’s recommendations about school resource officers and school security personnel.

The proposal, created by the board’s Policy and Governance Committee, suggests removing school safety and security personnel’s ability to make arrests, creating a plan for the removal of school resource officers by the start of the 2021-22 school year and investing in mental health and restorative justice programs for students.

Goldson’s recommendations were derived from the county’s Police Reform Work Group recommendation report. County Executive Angela Alsobrooks established the work group last year to reimagine policing in the county, and as of Feb. 5, 46 of 50 of its recommendations have been implemented.

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Goldson accepted all five of the group’s recommendations to “invest in mental health programs and restorative approaches to student discipline to help dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.” 

This is set to occur through a reduction in school security personnel with arresting powers, an increase in training and restructuring of security protocol, an establishment of safety data metrics to look toward eventually phasing out school resource officers and investments in mental health programs for students, according to the PGCPS school safety and security report.

These recommendations were implemented after the board’s meeting March 1. While Goldson’s proposal received six votes and the Protect our Students proposal received seven, a supermajority was needed to institute these changes, Ahmed said. The CEO, however, can choose to move forward with the recommendations because the board did not have enough votes to overturn the decision.

Ahmed said the reduction in security personnel with arresting powers is a step in the right direction. 

During the 2019-20 school year, 274 arrests were made, of which about 12 percent were made by school resource officers. African American students represented a vast majority of the arrests, accounting for 235 — 86 percent — of the arrests. 

Despite the county moving toward removing school resource officers, Ahmed said she’s concerned armed officers will still be present in school buildings. Though the CEO’s recommendations will be implemented for the 2021-22 school year, it is unclear when and if school resource officers will be removed. Ahmed’s goal, and those of the Policy and Governance Committee, will require patience — patience that, she noted, will be difficult to maintain. 

“Folks have been sitting in this system and disenfranchised by the system for so long,” Ahmed said. “I have a sense of urgency about this.”

Ashanti Martinez, a member of PG Changemakers Coalition, echoed Ahmed’s thoughts. Having more support for mental health and authentic community engagement would be a huge first step, Martinez said.

“Schools should be centers for the communities that they serve, and right now we don’t have a system that’s fully integrated that way,” Martinez said. “We’re getting there, but I feel like if we want schools to truly be that center, they have to be seen as safe spaces for everybody. And that means removing armed officers.”

Though there are some county community members who support the removal of the officers, others are concerned about student safety if they are removed. District 4 County Council Member Todd Turner said some parents were not comfortable with the immediate removal of school resource officers and personnel.

“Not to say that there aren’t reforms and other things that can be done, but you know, we still have to provide a safe and secure environment for all those who are in the school system,” Turner said.

Though he said he wants social workers and guidance counselors to be able to address mental health situations, Turner noted that if a student came in with a weapon, these people would not be prepared to address that situation. He said this is where law enforcement comes in: life or death situations.

Martinez said it will take re-education and reimagining of what safety looks like in these communities to reconcile these two main perspectives. 

“We’ve been conditioned to believe that armed officers are good against armed assailants, but what we’ve seen at a lot of the previous events where school resource officers were present, they didn’t necessarily make that much of a difference in the safety and lives of the children in those situations,” he said.

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Daniel Greene wrote in a testimony to the school board that amid these community concerns about safety, there is a perpetuated myth that school resource officers prevent school shootings. 

Greene, an information studies professor at the University of Maryland, cited research from the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that school resource officers do not prevent school shootings and that schools with school resource officers present have a three times greater death rate from mass shootings.

Violence is real and concerns about that should not be dismissed, Greene wrote. However, Greene added, too many actions and behaviors of students have been criminalized, along with this threat of school shooters, presenting armed officers as the only solution.

“School police remain the Swiss Army knife that tries to solve everything but can’t, because they don’t necessarily have the tools,” Greene said. “When teachers are overwhelmed and they don’t have any resources or additional staff, police end up picking up the slack.”

On the other hand, principals and assistant principals at these schools do not want to see school resource officers removed nor the school security eliminated, said Doris Reed, executive director of the school administrators and supervisors union. They want even more help, she explained.

“One of the problems is, people don’t realize what it is really like to work in a school, especially a high school,” Reed said. “If a fight breaks out in the school, teachers are going to call the administrators … I have people who have been seriously injured out here breaking up fights.”

When looking at the bigger picture, Reed said, 274 arrests out of more than 136,500 students is not as bad as people are making it out to be. Reed suggested the issues may stem from not holding parents accountable for their students, citing an inequivalent pressure placed on administrators to raise the students instead of educating them.

Looking forward, the conversation about school resource officers will continue. Half the school board supports the decision to remove the officers, and the other half does not, Ahmed said. Removing school resource officers will require the opposing board members to be “bold,” she said.

“It will really just take a change in hearts and minds of people on the board,” Ahmed said.