School district will phase out some security personnel
By Collin Riviello
Prince George’s County Public Schools will begin to phase out school security personnel who have arrest powers, as recommended by a county police reform task force in December.
County schools will continue to staff police officers, known as school resource officers (SROs), in its buildings, citing the positive influence of the addition of one such officer made to Northwestern High School, in Hyattsville in 1999.
While both officers and security guards are first responders to school incidents, there are differences between the two. SROs are on-duty local police officers, staffed to school buildings through agreements between police departments and county schools. School security personnel, direct employees of the school district, are unarmed. However, 66 of the county’s school security personnel can make arrests, because they are certified police officers.
On March 1, although seven members of the county school board supported a measure to eliminate school resource officers, they did not have the supermajority required to move forward. A supermajority was required because their proposal opposed the recommendation of Monica Goldson, the county’s CEO of schools.
In 2019, the county school system hosted 33 officers (costing $4.32 million, an average of $130,00 per officer, paid by local police forces) and employed 237 security guards (at an expense of $17 million, an average of $71,000 per guard), according to the task force report.
In recommending that the school district keep school resource officers in schools, CEO Goldson offered a history of SROs here in Hyattsville at Northwestern High School. Northwestern was the second school in the county, after Eleanor Roosevelt High School, to be staffed with an SRO, in the fall of 1999.
In the 1998-9 school year, before there was a dedicated officer for Northwestern, local police responded to 327 calls for service at Northwestern. After a school resource officer was staffed onsite the following year, police other than the school resource officer responded to calls for service only 56 times. This reduction prompted the expansion of the school resource program to the rest of the county, according to Goldson.
Twenty years later, the Hyattsville City Police Department reported only 17 crimes in the 2018-19 school year, However, those numbers do not include any reports made by the school’s investigator, a member of the school district’s security personnel who has arrest powers.
According to a county schools spokesperson, in 2019, Northwestern had 14 security personnel, including one investigator with arrest powers, and one investigative counselor. The Hyattsville City Police Department said Northwestern also has two school resource officers from the city’s force, only one of whom is generally at Northwestern at a time. Hyattsville Middle School had three security guards in 2019, and Nicholas Orem Middle School had an investigative counselor, three security assistants and an school resource officer from the county police department.
PGCPS Board Member Pamela Boozer-Strother, who oversees District 3, including Hyattsville schools, opposes phasing out school security with arrest powers, stating in the March 1 meeting that the influence of the close relationships formed between students and the SSPs, who they may see on a routine basis, should not be overlooked when tense situations must be de-escalated.
According to a press release by Goldson in January, approximately 88.2% (305) of the county’s arrests made in the 2017-18 school year were Black students. Following the passage of Maryland’s Safe-to-Learn Act in 2018, which required more of an SRO presence, the number of total arrests went down from 346 to 311, but the proportion of Black students arrested decreased by just two-percent to approximately 86% (270). And in the 2019-20 school year, the total number of arrests went down further to 274, but Black arrests dropped by just one-percent (85%). About 56% of students in county schools are Black.
During the past few years, school resource officers were responsible for only about 12% of arrests of students, according to the school district, with another 73% being made by school security personnel, and the rest made by patrol officers.
Advocates for decreasing the presence of officers in schools believe that the funds saved should be used to set up a restorative justice approach toward disciplining students that would involve hiring more guidance counselors and providing wider access to mental health supports in schools.
Shayla Adams-Stafford (District 4) voted yes to removing school resource officers and argued just that.
“As an educator for over a decade, I relied heavily on the school security guard in the school buildings to be the eyes and ears on the ground to know how we can support students,” she said. “[But] students in my district have taken surveys, and they’ve talked about the fear and the relationships that they have with officers walking around the buildings with guns, how they would prefer to have more counselors within their schools [and] to have more mental health supports.”
Boozer-Strother is concerned that meaningful relationships between the students and SSPs will be lost if they are phased out.
“It’s not as if students will not be arrested. It will be the closest responding patrol officers who have no relationship to the school building.”
Many county teachers and parents support onsite school resource officers. The school system received over 13,000 community responses to a school security team survey: About 52% of the respondents believed that SROs are “very important” in keeping schools safe, while 27% said SROs were “important” and 12% said “somewhat important.” Only 6% of respondents selected “not important.”
CEO Goldson told the school board on March 1 that her recommendations were not based on survey results, and that she conducted the survey as instructed by the board, despite reservations about using surveys to create policy.
The Board voted back in April of 2019 to approve a new task force called the Board of Education Community School to Prison Pipeline Focus Work Group that would host meetings and recommend school security reforms. Boozer-Strother says she is “expecting the more in-depth stakeholder engagement process on security” to begin through that work group.
That work group is different from the Prince George’s County Police Reform Task Force that recommended the security changes voted on in the March 1 meeting. The PG County Police Reform Task Force’s sole goal was to examine and suggest policy changes within the county’s police department.