Tuesday, April 6, 2021
The five-year-old left his school building during the school day and was walking down the street when confronted by police officers who yelled at him that he wasn’t allowed to make his own decisions. When they forced him into the back of the police cruiser, the five-year-old wailed.
“I hate school,” he told the officers.
But instead of being consoled, supported or even told that his feelings were understandable and he would be helped, the five-year-old was threatened, called names and handcuffed. Eventually, his mother was told by the intervening officer how he could be beaten without triggering a child abuse investigation.
The officer, who told other officers, “I’ve got this,” laughed about how he used to be beaten at school and then at his home.
“This is just an absolute and an incomprehensible failure, not just of policy and laws, but of basic humanity,” said Potomac’s councilmember Andrew Friedson.
“I’m appalled, I’m horrified, I’m truly shaken,” he said.
MAKING THE MATTER WORSE, Montgomery County Police and the Montgomery County Public Schools system never released the information. County Council only learned of the body-cam-footage when a lawsuit was filed over the January 2020 encounter, nearly a year later. When the Council did learn of the family’s legal complaint, the council asked for information from police and the school system only to be stonewalled for months.
Last week, Montgomery County Police Department released body-worn camera footage of the Jan. 2020 interaction between police officers, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) staff and a five-year-old student last week. The Council received the footage 23 minutes before an announcement was finally made.
“I couldn’t even watch it, I couldn’t finish,” said at-large councilmember Will Jawando. “I had to break it up into multiple sessions because it was unbearable.”
“To this young child and his family, I’m so sorry,” said Jawando.
The abuse continued as MCPS employees watched as police ridiculed the boy. “MCPS employees stood there and let this happen and didn’t intervene. This is a failure of multiple systems and individuals,” said Jawando.
“I can’t even say these words without getting emotional; to put a five year old child in handcuffs, an absolute disgrace,” said Council president Tom Hucker.
“Absolutely horrifying footage,” said Nancy Navarro (District 4), who said she felt rage and sadness watching the body-cam footage. “Absolutely shocking.”
“I, too, remain horrified by what I watched,” said at-large councilmember Evan Glass. “This is seared into my mind.”
“This never can happen again,” said Sidney Katz, former council president (District 3).
The Council will be briefed on the incident at its next full council meeting on Tuesday, April 6, after the Almanac’s presstime. Council staff warned that any information provided by the Executive branch and MCPS “may be significantly constrained due to a variety of legal prohibitions against sharing information such as disciplinary outcomes,” according to council documents. “Other discussion items may also be limited due to pending litigation.”
COUNTY EXECUTIVE Marc Elrich also “found the video of the incident involving the 5-year-old child difficult to watch.”
“Our police officers are not social workers, psychologists, or therapists and should not be giving advice or direction on parenting. Police duties should end as soon as school personnel are present to take over care of a child,” Elrich said.
Elrich said he asked Police Chief Marcus Jones to revisit training how officers are expected to interact with children.
But he said he is “limited in what I can say, I am not able to discuss disciplinary outcomes which have been taken,” because the county is now involved in the lawsuit.
Hucker said the council was exasperated with the way the Executive Branch handled the incident. “The footage should have also been released to the public much earlier. We also believe that our community deserved to hear directly from our County Executive about what actions the administration plans to take to make sure a situation like this never happens ever again."
"This incident also reflects the need for increased police training on interactions with young children and de-escalating situations,” said Hucker.
“Our heart aches for this student. There is no excuse for adults to ever speak to or threaten a child in this way. As parents and grandparents, we know that when families send their children to school, they expect that the staff will care for them, keep them safe and use appropriate intervention processes when needed,” according to MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith and school board president Brenda Wolff.
According to the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #35, a police union: “(W)e believe the event could have been handled better by all involved.”
JAWANDO SAID this is another reason why police should not be in schools. He and Councilmember Hans Riemer (at-large) have introduced bills to eliminate police from schools that the council will be debated on this spring.
“A tragedy like this should have never happened. It is absolutely unacceptable,” said Reimer. “It is also a symptom of decades of leaning too heavily on our criminal justice system to solve problems in society. We need major changes to police work as well as a big shift in how we respond to youth in schools and people with social service or mental health needs.
“Does that mean ‘defund’ or ‘abolish’ police? No – it means prioritizing police reform and charting a new vision for improved social services. Our police officers should be focused on solving serious crimes and keeping us safe.”