School Board candidates face off at candidate forum

School Board candidates face off at candidate forum
Sixteen school board candidates at the forum on Oct. 3 (Photo/ Denise Dunbar)

By Denise Dunbar |

Sixteen candidates running for nine seats on the Alexandria School Board participated in a forum on Oct. 3 at Del Ray United Methodist Church.

The 11 women and five men on the ballot for the Nov. 6 election shared their opinions on discipline within Alexandria City Public Schools, the appropriate role of school resource officers and the International Academy at T.C. Williams High School. The hour-long forum, sponsored jointly by Grassroots Alexandria and Tenants and Workers United, drew a crowd of about 75.

When asked about the “school to prison pipeline” and how to diminish the number of students who wind up incarcerated, the candidates had different takes.

Heather Thornton, who has worked overseas for the U.S. government, expressed concern about discipline disparities in the school system and advocated for the expansion of restorative practices.

Conversely, ACPS graduate Abigail Wacek expressed concern about utilizing restorative practices.

“I want to see if restorative practices work,” she said. “I don’t want us to be the guinea pig.”

Jewelyn Cosgrove argued that “suspensions don’t work. We had 13 kindergartners suspended last year. We need more cultural competency [among teachers and

School Board Chair Ramee Gentry, who is running for reelection, cited data from the spring indicating the number of suspensions in ACDS due to disorderly conduct had decreased.

Candidate Chris Suarez, a former teacher, said zero tolerance policies need to be repealed.

“We need compassionate discipline and student courts,” he said.

The sharpest contrasts came when candidates were asked if school resource officers, or SROs – who are armed police officers – should be stationed at T.C. Williams, the Minnie Howard T.C. campus and in middle schools.

Incumbent board member Bill Campbell, a mechanical engineer at the Department of Defense, gave SROs a strong endorsement.

“They [SROs] are there to become part of the schools, to help and assist. We have wonderful officers,” he said.

Christopher Harris, a former football coach at T.C. Williams, agreed, saying “It’s about having good relationships, building relationships.” Several candidates expressed support for SROs, with the condition that they only be utilized for serious discipline issues.

Suarez emphasized that teachers need to handle minor infractions themselves. Marc Solomon, who has worked in security-related positions, agreed, saying, “Our officers need to be the really good cops. We need to make sure they are not called [to classrooms] for minor infractions.”

Cynthia Anderson, a T.C. Williams graduate, said SROs were there for community building.

“We need to remove the [perceived] stigma for students of having a relationship with the officers,” Anderson said.

Meagan Alderton, a 15-year special education teacher, gave SROs a ringing endorsement.

“SROs absolutely should be in schools,” Alderton said. “I worked in both middle schools and they [SROs] were great.”

Alderton agreed SROs should not be called on to mediate minor infractions. 

John Lennon, a longtime ACPS volunteer, endorsed SROs, but with a caveat: “School safety is paramount.… But SROs should be the only people in a school wearing a gun.”

T.C. graduate Dianara Saget expressed more concern about SROs, saying she didn’t think guns should be in schools, including on SROs, and that SROs should not wear their full uniforms while in schools.

ACPS parent and nonprofit administrator Michelle Rief was the lone candidate to slam the concept of SROs.

“I have concerns about resource officers in schools,” she said. “I wouldn’t support policies that might result in more SROs.”

Candidates were also asked about the International Academy, which operates at T.C. Williams and is for students who come to ACPS with limited English proficiency. The Academy immerses students in English, but also puts them in academic classes so they don’t fall behind academically. Candidates were asked if they support the Academy, or feel that it segregates students, of whom about 75 percent are Spanish-speaking.

Incumbent school board member and ACPS parent Margaret Lorber expressed strong support for the Academy, saying, “The academy helps new students acculturate. I’m a huge advocate of it.”

Jacinta Greene, a volunteer for several women and children focused nonprofits, spoke from personal experience in her endorsement of the Academy.

“I personally partner with the International Academy,” she said. “These kids … come to this country and they need to be acclimated. This program helps them do that.”

Incumbent Veronica Nolan also expressed strong support for the Academy, saying the teachers and counselors in it are passionate about helping children. 

Gentry concurred, adding, “We adapted the International Academy three years ago. … It’s been very successful. It’s being brought into Hammond Middle School. It’s about meeting students where they are.”

Rief expressed concern about segregation and whether the Academy might be furthering it.

“I’m concerned about segregation across the system,” she said. “We have two different sets of expectations for two different sets of kids.”

During the lightning round, all 16 candidates said they support a cultural competency survey, all opposed allowing ICE to have access to schools and all supported a task force to examine discriminatory practices.

On the question of whether $300,000 in funding should be allocated for restorative practices, Wacek and Anderson voted no to the funding, while the other 14 candidates said yes.

The next candidate forum will be hosted by the Northern Virginia Urban League’s Young Professional Network on Friday from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Alfred Street Baptist Church.