By Lindsey Sullivan | [email protected]
As part of its bi-annual review of the memorandum of understanding between Alexandria schools and the Alexandria Police Department, the Alexandria School Board held a closed community work session on Oct. 15, where community members voiced both criticisms of and support for school resource officers.
The work session included input from two SROs at T.C. Williams High School — Gary Argueta and Johnny Larios — as well as Police Chief Michael Brown, Alexandria school administrators, the school board and several other community members.
John Contreras, director of safety and security services for Alexandria City Public Schools, cited some of the data collected as part of the school board’s current review that began Sept. 17. He said that favorability for SROs increased from 56% in 2018 to 68% in 2020, according to the ACPS high school community survey.
Conversely, however, he cited another community survey conducted for the school board’s review. The survey found that 56 of the 81 respondents said revisions should be made to the MOU, and of those 56, 40 mentioned removing SROs from Alexandria schools.
A concern frequently raised by administrators and community members during the meeting was the need for greater data collection on SROs and their work to assess whether the MOU is effectively meeting its goals.
Several community members raised concerns for students of color, who are disproportionately affected by disciplinary action taken in schools nationwide, according to several studies. Additionally, the demographic breakdown of the recent ACPS survey revealed that many of those dissatisfied with police presence in schools are people of color.
Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., as well as several other school administrators, provided some clarity on the issue raised about the disparity students of color face when it comes to disciplinary action. They all affirmed that SROs only get involved in criminal activity at schools and that all other disciplinary action is handled independently by administration.
Hutchings added that while this means the issue of racial disparities in schools needs to be addressed, it is an issue separate from the review of the MOU or SROs themselves.
Hutchings said data collection is integral for ACPS to monitor such goals and their outcomes, rather than having to respond to what the community is saying or what the nation is doing.
“What we’re trying to do, I believe, is trying to really change that narrative so that police officers can become those who protect and serve, not those who come in and police and come in and [create] inequities within our buildings,” Hutchings said.
Contreras said that the revised MOU improves the process used to measure the performance of SROs directly by including a new form called an “administrator/law enforcement report form.”
The form will be required any time there is a police action taken at a school, and once filed, safety and security services will be prompted to review and conduct research on the event — thus allowing ACPS to better analyze police actions that are taken at schools.
The form will also be used as part of the school board’s quarterly reviews, that are now mandatory, in addition to its annual reviews. Quarterly reviews will now take place in August, November, February and May.
Chief Brown asserted his agreement with conducting a regular review of the MOU and making revisions as needed.
Argueta and Larios, who have both been working as SROs for three years, talked about how they have developed relationships with students at T.C. Williams.
“My goal is to protect people,” Larios said. “Rather than getting people in trouble, I spend my time walking the halls speaking to kids who I’ve developed strong bonds with. They tell me about their family problems, their school problems, their love problems, people they’ve lost or [when] they just need guidance in life.”
Both officers said they have seen the positive impact that building relationships between students and officers can have.
The officers and administrators who spoke at the work session stated in agreement that SROs are better equipped to respond to criminal instances at schools than an outside officer would be. This is due not only to the positive relationships they develop, but also the proximity and familiarity they have with the school, they said.
“Nobody on the street is faster than me and other [resource] officers at getting to the school,” Larios said. “And I don’t think I need to explain why seconds matter in those situations.”
The administrators who spoke, including Peter Balas, principal of T.C. Williams, Jesse Mazur, principal of George Washington Middle School, and Pierrette Peters, principal of Francis Hammond Middle School, all spoke in favor of keeping SROs and said that they are an important part of maintaining the safety of Alexandria’s schools.
“In my humble opinion, the roles of the SROs in our schools exemplifies community policing at its finest — the establishment, the development of positive relationships among G.W. students and staff,” Mazur said. “It speaks to the power of relational connectedness and getting to know one another, strong communication, and trust — which defines the social good that SROs seek out in service of their badge and uniform while in schools.”
Balas addressed a concern raised by those in support of ending the MOU, such as those at Tenants and Workers United, who claim there is a correlation between SROs and suspension rates.
“To claim that suspension rate is directly related to, and negatively impacted by the SROs is simply false,” Balas said.
The other administrators echoed this statement, adding that suspension is a disciplinary action handled independently by school administration.
Peters added that SROs are an important part of Alexandria schools’ efforts in community policing, and have been particularly helpful in their efforts to move from a punitive approach to restorative practices.
“It’s greater than just discipline [and] creating a safe school environment, it’s definitely about community policing, it’s about building strong relationships with our students and families and school community,” Peters said.
In addition to the report form added to the MOU, the proposed MOU revisions address several other community concerns.
Contreras said section four of the MOU entitled “Roles and Responsibility” now explicitly states that SRO training must be completed prior to school assignment. It also contains revised language to better align with the school board policy “Standards of Student Conduct.”
Section five of the MOU entitled “Operation Procedures” is now revised to detail explicit requirements for SROs in the event of a student investigation. The section now states “Prior to any questioning of a student, the SRO or Police officer must verify that the student has had contact with their parent, guardian, or legal custodian.”
The previous MOU only mentioned the officer contacting parents, but made no indication of what the requirement was.
The school board will continue to review the MOU at their meeting Thursday, Oct. 29 and is slated to make its final decision on Nov. 2.