Community divided on council’s reallocation of SRO funding

Community divided on council’s reallocation of SRO funding
July 6 City Council public hearing.

By Olivia Anderson |

City Council approved the reallocation of $789,909 from the School Resource Officer program to mental health resources for students during the special public hearing on Tuesday night. The decision resurrected an ongoing debate surrounding the role of police officers in schools and highlighted a sharp divide between the School Board and council.

The allocated funds, which come from contingent reserves that formerly supported SROs, will support teen wellness and behavior support for school-aged children. The funding will allow for the creation of new mental health positions in Alexandria City Public Schools, including a mentoring partnership coordinator, $101,000; public health nurse, $122,000; therapist supervisor, $122,422; three senior therapists, $117,199 each; and human services specialist, $98,654.

According to city staff’s presentation, these services are in response to “long-standing needs” and will work to strengthen student support through reflection of trauma-informed approaches, racial equity and development assets.

ACPS and Arlington Public Schools are the only two districts in the region to have removed SROs from schools, with Alexandria’s decision coming on May 3 and Arlington’s on June 24.

Six people were employed in the SRO program, with five officers stationed inside Alexandria City High School, formerly called T.C. Williams High School, and the city’s public middle schools, and one serving as a supervisor.

During the public hearing, many community members shared both their support and opposition to whether this money should have instead gone toward the SROs that council eliminated earlier this year.

School Board member Cindy Anderson argued at the meeting that council’s decision to eliminate the program was not collaborative. The School Board voted 6-3 in October 2020 to reestablish a memorandum of understanding with APD that would maintain the SRO positions.

Reading a statement from the School Board, Anderson urged council to put a pause on its vote and to engage the community and School Board further.

“We have an opportunity here to engage our collective community in thoughtful discussions that include proponents on both sides of the issue,” Anderson said. “Currently we’ve made a decision about removing something without looking first at ways to get at a consensus on what the alternative should look like.”

She went on to suggest creating a fully documented process that outlines a vision for ultimate end goals and decision points. She asserted that the new mental health services “feel like a stab in the dark” and have not made a “genuine effort to get buy-in” from impacted ACPS staff, students and stakeholders.

But Councilor Canek Aguirre said that although the process could have been better, council attempted to collaborate. He noted that while the School Board was considering renewing its MOU with police, four council members sent letters to the board to make their opposition known and to start a conversation. Aguirre also noted that while the officers in question are stationed in ACPS, the positions in question are still in APD and are thus city positions that fall under the jurisdiction of council’s budgetary process.

“This isn’t something that’s crazy and out of the box; these aren’t positions that are going to be rushed in,” Aguirre said. “These [mental health professionals] are people who are trained and licensed and are going to come in and help relieve some of the waitlist already have existing.”

Regarding the SROs, Aguirre said that 90% of their job description, such as risk assessment and after-school programming, can and will continue to be completed off-campus. He also promised that staff will continue the relationships the officers had previously built.

According to Interim Police Chief Don Hayes, APD will continue to find “creative” ways to offer mentoring and after school support to ACPS students.

Some speakers expressed general support for the redirection of funds toward mental health services.

ACPS student Mily Palma, who is also a youth member of Tenants and Workers United, said that the approval is a “big accomplishment” for her and her peers.

“I’ve needed mental health support throughout middle school and high school, which has brought me positive results,” Palma said. “The reallocation of funding toward mental health is critical, as many youth have difficulties during the past year due to the drastic changes. … [These] resources are needed right now and will continue to be a huge resource for preparing for the current moment we’re in.”

Another speaker, Shira Eller, a member of Grassroots Alexandria, argued that the existence of the SRO program perpetuates harm to students with disabilities and students of color.

“The presence of armed and uniformed officers creates a hostile learning environment and contributes to the school to prison pipeline,” Eller said.

Council’s discussion of the SRO program followed the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, which pushed many school systems to reconsider and restructure how police function in school facilities.

Both Anderson and ACPS parent Bill Pfister expressed support for the SRO program, with Pfister stating there is no evidence that ACPS SROs create “the troubling issues that could exist in national studies” due to the city’s lack of data collection on the program.

Pfister also asserted that School Board members are better equipped to handle school-related concerns and criticized council’s decision to eliminate the SRO program despite the board’s 6-3 vote to keep it.

“I trust council to make decisions about our city, and I trust the School Board and school leadership to make decisions about our schools,” Pfister said. “I find it very troubling that some council members are undercutting the decisions of another elected body.”

During the deliberation period, the question of what “process” means in the context of council’s decision to reallocate the funds cropped up frequently. Anderson said that the “lack of process,” which to her involved council ignoring community engagement and “overriding” the board’s decision, is what proved most frustrating.

Councilor Mo Seifeldein countered that council’s budget process involves several public hearings and opportunities to receive community engagement. He also cited the previously mentioned letters, and said that council directed staff to communicate with school staff.

“I reached out to you during your process to engage with you, but I’m not sure I heard much from you or an attempt from your end to deal with that issue. Nevertheless, I go back to the issue here today which is … how these resources will help our students who are in need,” Seifeldein said.

Aguirre refuted claims that council’s vote was “late in the process” and “arbitrary,” stating that a decision could not have been made with data that has not existed in over 20 years, which he directed the city manager to investigate.

“I do not agree there was a disregard for the decision. There was a disagreement with the decision. This was not arbitrary; it was very much thought through,” Aguirre said. “ … I’ve struggled a lot with this decision. Of all the decisions we had to make on council, this is one that kept me up at night.”

Councilor Amy Jackson, the lone dissenter against reallocating funds to mental health services, lambasted the process and said she opposed the decision “on principle.” She called council’s decision to go against the School Board “awful.”

“School Board, as elected officials, were undermined in this process. … They had the community engagement and then City Council turned around and said, ‘Sorry, we don’t like your answer, this is how it’s going to be.’ That’s bullying,” Jackson said.

Even though he voted against the original 4-3 council decision to remove SROs, Mayor Justin Wilson said he supports the “appropriate” allocation of funds toward mental health resources.

“The root of this was that it was just a disagreement on the substance, and no amount of process was going to fix that disagreement. You had a majority of the School Board in disagreement with a majority of the City Council,” Wilson said, emphasizing the need to mend the relationship between council and the board in the future.

City Council voted 5-1 to approve the mental health services budget, with Jackson dissenting and Councilor Del Pepper absent.