A Thursday discussion on school resource officers in Prince George’s County Public Schools could bring some intense emotions.
At stake: whether to utilize $5 million earmarked for police protection to instead hire more social workers, mental health professionals and counselors for students in Maryland’s second-largest public school system.
As a part of that, some school board members wanted additional information from schools CEO Monica Goldson and other administrators on how to amend the current fiscal year budget.
They wanted that information in June, before the budget was approved and went into effect July 1.
“This is a political thing and this is how people are going to look at it. It looks wrong,” board member Belinda Queen said during Monday’s Operations, Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee virtual session.
Committee member and board Chair Alvin Thornton pressed for unity.
“I’m looking for the kind of unity from this board to serve the interest of our children,” he said. “We can make a fight where there does not need to be a fight. I do not want to be put in a position as a member of this committee as opposing mental health and counselors.”
The use of school resource officers (SROs) has long been a thorny subject. The argument over the presence of law enforcement officials in schools became part of the national conversation on police reform, spurred by the high-profile police-involved deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
For instance, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted in July to cut its school police budget by $25 million, with plans to redirect the funds to schools with majority-Black student populations for social services, guidance counselors and safety aides.
Two days before Thursday’s school board meeting in Prince George’s, a group of activists plans to hold a “No Police in Schools” rally Tuesday outside Suitland High School in Forestville “to let the school board know we want counselors, not cops.”
No SROs are currently patrolling the schools because the coronavirus pandemic forced school officials to implement virtual and distance learning for students the entire first semester through Jan. 29.
During Monday’s committee session, Archie O’Neil, a former police officer who now works as the school system’s director of safety and security services, presented some information on the system’s SRO program.
O’Neil said the first SRO came from the Greenbelt Police Department assigned to Eleanor Roosevelt High School. No date was provided on when he came to the school.
A second officer assigned in 1998 came from the Hyattsville Police Department and patrolled Northwestern High School.
Today, about 28 of the 33 school resource officers are Prince George’s County police officers assigned at high schools. The other five came from Bowie, Greenbelt and Hyattsville police departments.
According to school documents, contracts expired June 30 for the three municipal police departments in at $80,000 each per year.
A contract with the county police department expires in June 2022.
Part of a memorandum of understanding outlines each policing agency pays for the SROs assigned to school sites.
Another 66 security personnel with arrest powers work for the school system’s safety and security services. O’Neil said a sergeant covers about five schools in a cluster throughout the county.
A state law passed in 2018 requires all of the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore City to either have a school resource officer, or “adequate law enforcement coverage.”
After the presentation and more than an hour of debate, the committee voted 3-2 to recommend the full board receive more information from school staff and comments from community leaders and parents on school resource officers. That includes waiting until the county executive’s police reform task force completes its report by Oct. 30.
Curtis Valentine, who serves on the committee and presented the suggestion, said Goldson can then submit a full report to the board by Jan. 8.
“We don’t have students in the building right now,” he said. “I think we should use this time to get as much information as we can to be as informed as we can.”
Thornton and recently appointed committee Chair Sonya Williams agreed with Valentine. Queen and Edward Burroughs III voted against the recommendation.