A crowd of students participated in a schoolwide walkout at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia on Thursday afternoon.
Organized by the Wilde Lake High School Students for Social Justice group, the walkout was held to support the removal of school resource officers in the Howard County Public School System.
Gabby Oshadiya, 15, a freshman at Wilde Lake, was one of the organizers and said she thinks resource officers should be removed from schools.
“SROs cause Black and brown students to feel very unsafe coming into a building where you’re supposed to feel safe, welcome and learn and enjoy school,” Oshadiya said. “You shouldn’t have to feel [that way] coming in every day.”
Wilde Lake High School Students for Social Justice said resource officers have a disproportionately negative impact on Black and brown students, according to a news release from the group announcing the walkout. Instead of SROs, the group is asking for the school system to implement restorative practices. “These practices include relationship building, more mental health professionals and resources, trauma-informed and healing-centered practices, [and] peer mediation,” the release states.
According to the most recent school system data, Black students make up 24.7% of the county student population, while white students are 32.8%. Hispanic/Latino students represent 12.5%, Asian students 23.3%, and the rest identify as two or more races or other.
However, according to an April 2020 report from the school system, Black students have been suspended at higher rates than other students from 2017 through 2019. At 5.6% in 2019, Black students’ suspension rate was almost 2.5 times higher than non-Black students’ suspension rate. Black students made up about 59.3% of all suspensions in 2019, while white students were 17.4%, Hispanic 10.9%, two or more races/other 6.5% and Asian 5.6%.
The SRO program, which has existed in the county since 1996, currently has 19 SROs — one for all 12 public high schools and the Homewood Center, and six officers who split 12 middle schools. There are no SROs in elementary schools; however, elementary and middle school administrators can receive coverage and assistance from police when needed.
The 12 middle schools that split six resource officers are: Mayfield Woods, Patuxent Valley, Wilde Lake, Harper’s Choice, Lake Elkhorn, Oakland Mills, Murray Hill, Hammond, Thomas Viaduct, Elkridge Landing, Bonnie Branch and Ellicott Mills. Last fall, Board of Education student member Zach Koung questioned the selection of those schools and noted that those 12 schools are the ones with the highest percentage of Black students among the county’s middle schools.
The walkout comes at a time when the Board of Education has consistency postponed a vote on the SRO program in county public schools.
Having police officers in county schools has been a contentious topic of conversation in Howard County since the youth-led racial justice protests last summer, and the school board has discussed the program multiple times since September when Koung raised the initial motion to remove SROs. His motion surprised multiple board members at the time and failed 4-2-2. However, it sparked future board discussions, town halls and focus groups about the program.
In January, the board approved motions that determined no SROs would be in school buildings until a new agreement was forged. So, even now as many students are back in buildings at least two days a week for hybrid learning, police officers are not with them.
The board was supposed to vote on the SROs agreement at its April 29 meeting and then its May 11 meeting, postponing it each time.
At 1:30 p.m. Thursday, some Wilde Lake students who were frustrated with the repeatedly postponed votes left the school building and walked to the football field to participate in the walkout.
Speakers there spoke about the effects of SROs in schools, while students sat in the bleachers and listened.
Oliver Song, 16, a Wilde Lake sophomore and another one of the organizers, said he wanted to participate because he wanted to learn the experiences of other students.
“Other students of color, particularly Black and brown students, are disproportionately affected by SROs,” Song said. “Since I am not Black or brown, it is important to listen to their voices and their perspectives.”
Students from other schools in the county were invited to participate in the rally virtually through Google Meets.
Oshadiya said she hopes the walkout will allow students’ voices to be heard.
“I [hope] that board members see that students within their county feel strongly about this issue, and you voting the other side affects students more than you may know,” she said.