Youth-police panel: student arrest rates in MoCo schools much higher than in MD or US

On Monday night I was honored to be part of a panel, convened by the remarkable Montgomery Blair High School student activist Alix Swann, on the topic of “Youth Police Interactions.” Panelists included:

L.to R.: Alix Swann, Minister Kenyatta Gilbert, Rick Hart, Thomas Nephew, Officer Ana Hester, Julian Norment, Eddie Ellis

The panel — organized as part of a Girl Scout Gold Award project by Ms. Swann — was preceded by a viewing of a video she and other members of Montgomery County’s “Gandhi Brigade Youth Media” made, titled “To Serve and Protect?

Alix will be providing video of the panel and her writeup of the evening.  In the following, I’ll share the data and remarks I prepared before the panel discussion, which focused on one of the questions Alix circulated before the event: “Recently we have seen many videos of School Resource Officers using excessive force. Do you think School Resource Officers are important? If so, why?”  During the event, I excerpted from those remarks as Alix and the audience posed questions to the panel.


Prepared remarks for Youth and Police Interaction Panel
Congratulations on convening this important panel, and thank you for inviting Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition to be a part of it.

We share your concern about police reform generally and about youth/police interactions specifically.  Our newly formed Police Reform Committee is active on several issues touching on statewide and county police reform; broadly, we support greater transparency of police conduct, more effective penalties for misconduct, and a greater civilian role in overseeing all of that.  Specifically, our two police reform campaigns at the present time advocate…

  1. civilian participation in MCPD administrative boards – that is, a civilian role in the final stage of police misconduct review, and
  2. full reporting of SWAT team activities throughout the state.

MCCRC has also played an active and constructive role in local youth/police interactions.  I think it’s very worthwhile to remember that just a few years ago (2011 to be exact), County Executive Ike Leggett, many County Council members, and even advocacy groups like Safe Silver Spring were in such a panic about a fight in downtown Silver Spring that they advocated first a youth curfew and then an “anti loitering” bill — both designed to allow police to subjectively penalize youths they deemed a nuisance or a danger.  I’m still proud to recall MCCRC’s support of Leah Muskin Pierret and other high school students who successfully resisted the curfew — and then our successful collaboration with Howard University Law students to resist the  loitering bill.

That’s right — in the end, nothing was done.  Sometimes you have to fight for that.  But in the years that followed, we all did just fine without either a curfew or a loitering bill.  You’re welcome!

It might be that doing nothing, or at least the very absolute minimum, is often the best approach when it comes to youth and police – especially in our schools.  As persuasive as associations like NASRO (National Association of School Resource Officers) or our friends here from MCPD can be that their hearts are in the right place, we’re particularly skeptical of “School Resource Officer” programs in Montgomery County, Maryland, and the US.  American schools once did just fine without SRO’s – maybe, just maybe, they might be able to do so again.

A recent study of school arrest data by Education Weekly (Black Students More Likely to Be Arrested at School, 1/25/2017), based on the most recent available Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection data (2013-2014) , showed several disturbing results – including ones about our state and county.  Nationally, the student arrest rate was about 140 per 100000 enrolled students, but in Maryland, the rate was 217 per 100000, and in Montgomery County, the rate was a whopping 322 per 100000 — well over double the national rate.  Nationally, student arrest and referral rates are significantly related to presence of SROs in schools (Nance, 2016), though we hasten to add we haven’t run the corresponding analyses for MD or Montgomery County schools.  We may actually be fortunate that only 12% of MCPS schools reported having SROs (compared to around 30% in MD and nationwide), though that seems to mainly reflect their absence in many elementary and middle schools.   (Data for Montgomery County schools are presented in a table at the end of this post.)

As so often the case, racial disparities exist.  Nationwide, 33% of arrests of students arrested were black, compared to just 16% of overall enrollment; by contrast, just 34% of arrests were white, compared to 50% of enrollment.  (Nationally , Hispanics comprised about 25% of arrests and enrollment.)  The Education Week article didn’t present detailed racial arrest data, but I went to the ED.gov site to look at  Montgomery Blair High School and found that 14 of 48(!!) or 29% of arrests there in 2013 were of blacks, which is about the same as the 27% enrollment level.  However, fully 42% were Hispanic students, way out of line with their 30% enrollment; on the flip side, while 23% of MBHS students were white, only 8% of those arrested were.  The 2013-14 Montgomery Blair High School arrest rate, by the way? 1708 per 100000 — well over ten times the national rate.

We can certainly welcome school resource officer guidelines developed by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice under the Obama administration, which recommend memoranda of understanding between law enforcement and school systems.  We can also welcome the existence of such a “Memorandum of Understanding” between Montgomery County Public Schools and the various law enforcement agencies in our county.

But all of that is clearly not enough; something is clearly wrong.  Too many arrests are happening in Maryland and Montgomery County schools, and if Montgomery Blair High School – one of the flagship schools of the system — is any indication, they are happening to minorities more often than their enrollment would predict.

Officers in schools have the power to arrest, something that can derail a young person’s life for years if not a lifetime.  They also have the power to use force; at least one SRO has used a taser — which the UN has aptly called an instrument of torture— in a Montgomery County school.  That’s a terrifying  and (we believe) completely inappropriate prospect for students.  It’s not at all clear why either arrests or force by officers detailed to schools are sensible policy options rather than avoidable misfortunes waiting to happen.

Again, schools once functioned just fine without SROs or arrests or tasers.  One group advocating just that is the “Dignity in Schools Campaign, whose “Counselors not Cops: Ending the Regular Presence of Law Enforcement in Schools” policy recommendations include…

  1. End the Regular Presence of Law Enforcement in Schools
  2. Create Safe Schools through Positive Safety and Discipline Measures
  3. Restrict the Role of Law Enforcement that are Called in to Schools

That day may be a long way off, but in the meantime — just as the Obama Justice and Education departments once recommended — we strongly support county schools, law enforcement agencies, and communities working together to reevaluate the need for and roles of officers in schools.  Perhaps tonight will be a first step on that journey.


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