ACPS requests private security

ACPS requests private security
Alexandria City High School. (File Photo)

By Olivia Anderson |

Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. and staff sent a proposal to the School Board on July 16 requesting increased security inside school buildings. The report comes after City Council reallocated funds from the School Resource Officer program for mental health initiatives.

According to the report, ACPS stakeholders, including Alicia Hart, executive director of facilities and operations, safety and security services leadership, secondary principal leadership and student services leadership, met to determine the consequences of City Council’s reallocation of SRO funding, potential security solutions and next steps.

ACPS Chief of Staff Stephen Wilkins said that the school plans, which are made in collaboration with the Alexandria Police Department, aim to adapt to the new security regulations.

“ACPS is adjusting its school safety plans to respond to the loss of the SRO program at the high school and middle schools, ” Wilkins said. “ACPS continues to keep school safety and security as a priority for our students and staff.”

Council voted 4-3 on May 3 to reallocate $789,909 in funding from the SRO program to mental health resources. This money will now go toward the creation of new positions, including a mentoring partnership coordinator, public health nurse, therapist supervisor, three senior therapists and a human services specialist.

Before that, back in October 2020, the School Board signed a Memorandum of Understanding with APD to keep SROs in schools. It prohibited SROs from wearing body cameras and openly displaying long-arms, and included a notice of rights that would be read to students if they are questioned by an SRO on school property.

The July 16 report highlighted ACPS’ sense of urgency in reaching a viable solution with APD as soon as possible.

“Please note that this decision only affords ACPS approximately 3 months to establish a contingency plan with regards to safety and security mitigations for our students and staff in the midst of our summer learning and reopening for fall during a global pandemic,” reads the report.

Born from the meeting with ACPS stakeholders, the report outlined the “implications” of the recent removal of SROs. It cited increased vulnerability at school sites; decreased deterrence of situations like active threats; potential increase of calls for service from APD to respond given no SRO coverage; decreased police response time to calls for service; and an increase to ACPS’ operating budget to fund additional “School Security Officers” to help offset the loss.

As part of the report, Hutchings and staff presented three potential security solutions. The first, Option A, is to supplement the loss of five SROs with five additional School Security Officers. According to staff, the annual cost per contracted SSO is approximately $37,000, totaling $185,000 for all five.

Unlike SROs, SSOs are not armed, not law enforcement officers and their primary responsibility is to observe and report.

Option B would involve increasing the safety and security services budget to include funding for at least two detailed police officers, who generally focus on traffic control and work the perimeter of a school location.

According to staff, the rate for a detailed police officer is $50 per hour, and the schedule for this officer is primarily 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The estimated cost is $72,000 per officer, totaling $144,000 for both. Both officers would patrol the four impacted sites – Alexandria City High School, its Minnie Howard campus and the city’s two middle schools – and provide an “additional layer of safety” by performing random daily check-ins at all ACPS campuses.

Finally, Option C, Hutchings’ recommendation, is a combination of the aforementioned options.

“This option would allow for additional SSOs to provide supplemental safety coverage and for detailed officer support in frequently patrolling the exterior of facilities,” reads the report.

This most recent proposal follows a divided – and controversial – council decision in May that involved the removal of five SROs from Alexandria City High School, Francis C. Hammond Middle School and George Washington Middle School. Many who supported the program’s removal argued that it perpetuates harm to students of color and students with disabilities.

“We hope to send a clear message to the parents of the children in our community that we are serious about dealing with the myriad of social, psychological and emotional issues their children face through the prioritization of adequate mental health program[s],” Councilor Mo Seifeldein, who voted in favor of reallocating the funds, said in a statement at the time.

Many who voted against it cited both school safety and a lack of communication between the School Board and City Council.

Mayor Justin Wilson, who voted against reallocating the SRO funding, told the Times that the process was uncollaborative and disjointed, with council using a “sledgehammer” to override the board’s initial 6-3 vote to keep the program intact.

Wilson said he maintains his initial stance, noting that ACPS staff’s most recent request is part of the ongoing mission to keep students safe.

“You have, now, the schools making the decision that in some cases involves city personnel, police officers on extra duty assignments, and the city separately making decisions to remove positions. It’s just not the way we make good policy,” Wilson said. “We make good policy by sitting down at the table, collaborating, coming up with answers. Had we taken the time to do that, I think we potentially could have ended up in a much better place.”

Of the three proposed options, Wilson said he didn’t want to “put [his] finger on the scale” but reiterated his opposition to cutting the APD headcount and dissatisfaction with the overall situation.

“The reality is that you look at one of these options – it could be that they have Alexandria police patrolling the perimeter of the building and things like that – that could have been something we could have arrived at [in] the conclusion of our process that we had collaboratively,” Wilson said.

APD did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

Although council ultimately voted during its budget process to reallocate funding for the SRO program, a new MOU is currently in the works. ACPS met with APD leadership on June 10 to discuss a revised MOU that incorporates the new proposed options, information on calls for service procedures and the continued use of the Law Enforcement Occurrence Reporting Form.

Next steps for ACPS include updating the Student Code of Conduct to include a new administrative process for responding to events that warrant police support, an effort that will be led by the department of student services and equity.

According to staff, the hope is to accomplish this by the end of August.

“Supplementing the SRO program with additional SSOs will provide some safety and coverage and help deter potential safety issues in the absence of the SRO program,” reads the report.