When Makal Matthews served his term as Prince George’s County student government vice president during the 2020-21 school year, he focused mainly on removing school resource officers.
Prince George’s not only receives public safety coverage from local police departments known as SROs, but also dozens of school system security personnel are endowed with arrest powers.
“The way to keep schools safe really starts with counselors,” Makal, 16, who will begin the 11th grade in the fall at Parkdale High School in Riverdale, said Saturday, June 19. “I’m not against law enforcement in general. I think it’s very important to have some type of order in school, but…counselors should be available at any given time at school. That’s better for students.”
That’s what some congressional officials propose to do this year. They want to use federal money for counselors, nurses and other trauma-informed specialists, versus constantly funding police in schools.
Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) held a virtual press conference last week to reintroduce the “Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act.”
“If we are really committed to racial justice, to dismantling mass incarceration… The way to do undo that harm is with the power of the pen and also with the power of the purse,” Pressley said Thursday, June 17. “This is about systemic reform. This is about culture shift and that’s what this moment requires.”
One aspect to bring the bill back, which didn’t receive support last year, rests with a Democratic majority in the House and control of the Senate in case Vice President Kamala Harris needs to break ties.
The bill seeks to create a $5 billion grant program to provide schools with additional guidance counselors, nurses, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists.
More importantly, it would restrict the use of federal dollars to pay for police in schools.
The proposed legislation notes that, after more than $1 billion spent on law enforcement officers for schools since 1999, that result is the hiring of 46,000 officers “patrolling the halls of elementary and secondary public schools across the nation.”
State, counties, municipalities and school districts can continue authorizing contracts with law enforcement agencies to police schools.
In Maryland, state law requires the 23 counties and Baltimore City to provide an SRO, or “adequate law enforcement coverage” at all public high schools.
The 33 SROs in Prince George’s schools are compensated based on a contract between the county government and police department scheduled to expire June 2022.
According to the county budget, 66 “security investigators” have arrest powers and are funded through the school system.
The school system released a survey earlier this year with 13,000 respondents who overwhelmingly support SROs that included 92 percent who said an interaction with SROs “was positive.”
About 45 percent of the respondents noted their role in the school community as a teacher or school-based staff member. Another 39 percent either a parent or guardian and 13 percent as students.
Others claim the role is inappropriate.
Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, says SROs save lives.
“Policy makers and the communities they represent would be unwise, however, to ignore abundant anecdotal evidence of the value of carefully selected, specifically trained and properly equipped school resource officers in responding to and averting school violence while building positive relationships with students of all backgrounds,” Canady wrote.
However, some high school students such as Econia Mandefero of Nevada said officers aren’t necessary.
She described an event when a classmate experienced “a terrible day” after her mother got into a car crash. He got into “a minor conflict” with another student and later handcuffed by officers who “put a knee on his back.”
“The police inappropriately intervened and escalated the whole situation. I know that police officers in my school do not make me feel safe,” said Mandefero, who spoke during the press briefing Thursday. “What we need in our school are more counselors, nurses [and] therapists. These supports are virtually non-existent.”