SROs could be removed from PGCPS
By Brandon Fastman
Issa Moquete never had any direct interaction with the school resource officer (SRO) at Northwestern High School, though she does recall the time he chased her and her peers from campus to the Prince George’s Plaza Metro station. It was 2003, and the students had staged a walkout to join an Iraq War protest in D.C.
Come January, Prince George’s County may no longer have SROs in public schools. A measure to end contracts with law enforcement agencies failed in September, but the county school board will revisit the issue at its Jan. 14 meeting, after surveying the community for feedback.
A 2005 graduate of Northwestern, Moquete is now a social worker at a New Orleans high school. She recently joined a panel organized by the Mount Rainier Organization for Racial Equity to discuss the impacts of SROs in Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS). Moquete’s own school of about 900 students employs four mental health professionals and no law enforcement personnel. “I absolutely love my school,” she said, “and one of the reasons why is because it has invested so many resources into mental health services and scholar support services.”
The SRO who chased Moquete and her friends back in 2003 was then-Cpl. Mike Rudinski, who was Northwestern’s first SRO. Rudinski served at the school for 17 years and retired from the Hyattsville City Police Department (HCPD) in 2016. Now, he works for the Maryland Center for School Safety and trains other SROs.
In a November presentation to the state of Maryland’s School Safety Advisory Board, Rudinski said he agrees that there should be more counselors, but that it doesn’t need to be an either/or choice. HCPD Chief Amal Awad explained that officers, themselves, act as mentors, counselors and instructors, educating students, for instance, about illicit drugs and gangs. They may also coach sports and participate in community events. “Let me just say with our SROs … there’s an appreciation for them being there. Kids stop into their office, they seek counseling from our officers.”
Unlike at most schools in the county, Northwestern’s SROs are not members of the Prince George’s Police Department (PGPD), but are HCPD officers.
The county budget allots $17 million for law enforcement and security personnel in schools. The HCPD receives $80,000 for its SROs. According to a PGPD spokesperson, all of the money comes from the county’s general fund.
Before classes went virtual due to the pandemic, Northwestern had two SROs, one lead investigator, one investigative counselor and 12 security assistants, according to the PGPD spokesperson. Nicholas Orem Middle School had one investigative counselor, three security assistants and one SRO from the PGPD. Hyattsville Middle School had two security assistants.
The Hyattsville Life & Times requested interviews with school principals but did not receive responses before press time.
The measure to remove SROs was voted down 8-6 at the Sept. 17 county board of education (BOE) meeting. Two of the board members who voted against the measure lost their seats in the November election, though, so a second vote could reverse the decision.
BOE Member Pamela Boozer-Strother (District 3) said via email, “My vote was against the initial proposal to suddenly end the SRO program with no thoughtful transition. I did not consider this proposal in the best interest of PGCPS students. I … supported the CEO coming back with a security reform plan that may include SRO program reform.”
Advocates for removal of SROs argue that the mere presence of officers diminishes an educational institution’s mission of nurturing and educating children. Tyler Smith, a Howard University student and COO of Stand Up!, a youth advocacy organization which includes former and current PGCPS students, takes this position. Officers “never really did contribute to me feeling safe or comfortable,” he said. It felt like “they were watching for us to make a mistake.”
The Maryland Office of the Public Defender has advocated for an end to staffing police officers in schools. Michelle Hall, an assistant public defender who represents juveniles in the county, said that many of her clients are charged with offenses like assault and robbery and trespassing when, absent an officer, such behavior would probably be labelled fighting and bullying and loitering — teenage behavior that may require intervention, such as restorative justice or mental health services, but not engagement with the legal system.
“The best thing that can happen when you end up in juvenile court,” she said, “is a net neutral.”
Moreover, there are racial disparities in the policing of students. According to Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) data, during the 2018-19 school year, African Americans accounted for 57% of the student population in Prince George’s County while they made up 87% of the 311 students arrested in public schools. Students with disabilities were also overrepresented in arrest statistics, according to MSDE data.
The rationale for keeping law enforcement on campuses is to protect students, not police them. Awad said that her department’s SROs have defused several dangerous situations. “We’re talking about incidents where assaults have occurred, students from other campuses showing up with an edged weapon, a replica gun,” she said.
Rudinski said he witnessed parents attacking administrators and even students. Rudinski said that arrest data does not account for all the situations in which SROs may be pressed to intervene. “We’re not getting a total picture; we’re just getting a piece of the puzzle,” he said.
Hall sees the lack of data differently, noting, “There is no study, local or national, that talks about how the presence of police in schools has reduced violence by x amount.”