By Lindsey Sullivan | [email protected]
The Alexandria School Board began conducting its bi-annual review of the memorandum of understanding between Alexandria City Public Schools and the Alexandria Police Department this month. The board invited the community to be a part of the process, holding a public hearing on the MOU at its meeting on Oct. 1.
Some residents, including members of Tenants and Workers United, a social justice organization in Northern Virginia, are asking that the MOU be ended entirely. Part of the agreement places student resource officers within Alexandria’s schools.
Students who spoke at the public hearing said they feel SROs create a negative presence within schools, especially for students of color.
“[SROs] not only make me feel scared and uncomfortable, but also many Black and brown students as well,” Alessandra Guevara, a freshman at the Minnie Howard campus of T.C. Williams High School, said.
Other students, many of whom are members of TWU’s youth group, echoed this sentiment at the hearing.
The purpose of the MOU is to “establish a mutually beneficial framework that both schools and law enforcement can work within to achieve shared goals,” according to the MOU document. Such goals include promoting “positive and supportive school climates” and creating and maintaining “safe and secure school environments.”
Sarah Feinberg, who spoke at the hearing, is a parent of three ACPS students. She said there should be no mutually beneficial agreement between schools and law enforcement in the first place.
Ingris Moran, lead organizer at TWU, said the organization has been actively working with students to put an end to the memorandum because they believe it disproportionately affects people of color.
Moran said SROs often give harsher punishments to students of color, feeding the school-to-prison pipeline. Additionally, she said the language in the memorandum depicts students in a negative light.
“We feel that having police [in schools] isn’t going to have any benefit because we’ve seen that there isn’t good communication or good trust [between] police and our communities of color,” Moran said.
Instead of SROs, TWU advocates for restorative practices within schools. Such practices are already at play in ACPS, and include preventative measures such as community-building circles within classrooms, or response measures such as creating alternatives to out-of-school suspension when disciplinary action is required.
Julia Burgos, chief of school and community relations, said it is important to keep in mind that SROs are only one of many factors contributing to the disciplinary data that is used when considering the school-to-prison pipeline. She added that most disciplinary action is handled by school administration, not SROs.
Alexandria Police Chief Michael Brown echoed Burgos’ assertion, adding that SROs only get involved with disciplinary action during instances of criminal activity.
The APD established CAT21 – an advisory team that serves as a liaison for the community and police department – as part of its Racial Equity Plan in 2017 to build public trust and promote impartial treatment toward all community members. Moran is a community leader involved with this effort.
Additionally, ACPS continues to address growing concerns about racial equity surrounding the MOU with its new strategic plan entitled “Equity for All.”
Brown said he believes SROs can be valuable to schools, if used properly, by providing students the opportunity to have positive interactions with officers on a daily basis and estalish a mentoring relationship with them.
Beyond creating positive interactions between students and police, the main intent behind SROs is to ensure schools are a safe environment for both students and teachers, Brown said.
But some parents have voiced their concerns about safety issues associated with having armed officers in schools. One example of this occurred in 2018, when an SRO at George Washington Middle School accidentally discharged his firearm on school grounds.
William Olson, the parent of an ACPS student, raised additional concerns about SROs. He said he was disturbed when police failed to contact him or his wife before interrogating his 8-year-old son with special needs in 2019. This occurred despite policy requiring a reasonable effort to contact parents prior to interrogations.
Burgos said the school board will continue to heed the community’s concerns as they review the MOU. The board will host a community work session Oct. 15 and make their final decision by Nov. 2.
Brown added that the APD has no influence on the reviewing process, and that he and the rest of the department will respect whatever decision the school board makes.