By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
School Resource Officers will return to Alexandria’s high school and middle schools temporarily as the city and schools work to transition into an alternative model that was proposed during a heated, three-hour long discussion at City Council’s Tuesday night legislative meeting.
Council voted 4-3 to return SROs to ACPS schools for a period of time under the previous memorandum of understanding the School Board had worked out with the Alexandria Police Department. Meanwhile, work will be done to transition away from having armed police in schools and toward an increased emphasis on social and emotional support, mentoring and mental health services for students and families. Councilors Canek Aguirre, Elizabeth Bennett-Parker and Mo Seifeldein voted against the temporary return of SROs.
The hours-long discussion on Tuesday night was the culmination of rising tensions in the city around the topic of SROs and the role they should or should not play in the city’s schools. After the School Board approved its MOU with the police department last year, City Council voted to reallocate the $800,000 in funding toward the SRO program during its budget process in May. Council voted to redirect the funding toward additional mental health resources, teen wellness and other non-SRO related safety measures.
The 4-3 decision, supported by Aguirre, Bennett-Parker, John Chapman and Seifeldein, divided both council and the community at the time, with some arguing SROs are a necessary safety measure and others arguing police in schools present a threat, both mental and physical, to students of color and students with disabilities.
Since council’s decision and the start of the 2021-2022 school year, there have been a series of fights and one case of a student being arrested after bringing a firearm onto Alexandria City High School’s campus. There have also been two shootings off school property that involved juveniles.
Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D., Alexandria City High School Principal Peter Balas and School Board Chair Meagan Alderton all spoke during the Tuesday meeting and pleaded with council to restore SROs.
“[SROs have been] the key to preventing incidents and the escalation of events at the schools, and we definitely need them back as soon as possible,” Hutchings said.
Hutchings said he supported the shift toward additional mental health resources but that SROs are also a valuable part of ACPS’ security measures.
In lieu of SROs, ACPS still maintains the presence of school security officers, trained security personnel who do not carry firearms and are stationed in both ACHS and the city’s two middle schools. There are currently 21 SSOs stationed at ACHS, six at the Minnie Howard campus and five at George Washington and Francis Hammond middle schools. In addition, APD has been stationing officers outside the high school and middle schools in the morning and during dismissal, paying them overtime to do so.
Aguirre, who maintained his opposition to SROs, called for more data on how SROs impact school safety, pointing out that very little data was collected during the 22 years of the program. He also questioned whether the level of violence and number of student fights is abnormal compared to previous years.
“For years, we’ve known security was an issue at the high school. We haven’t seen concrete policy and actions taken,” Aguirre said.
Mayor Justin Wilson expressed frustration and disappointment toward the process that led council to this point and the conversation as a whole.
“I think [this] has been a horrific process from the beginning. Regardless of your view on this issue, this is not the way we collaborate with another elected body,” Wilson said. “This sucks. This is disastrous. What person would watch this meeting tonight and say, ‘This is where I want to send my kids’?”
Another complication came in the form of a statement released shortly before the meeting in which the four council members who voted to relocate funding for SROs back in May laid out an alternative plan of action.
“We will not be reimplementing the SRO program, but we offer instead a new path forward,” the statement read. “… We propose to add additional resources … for ACPS to implement a holistic student health and safety solution, which includes a transitional period, immediate and ongoing support, and a long-term solution to begin in the 2022-2023 school year.”
The proposal laid out by Aguirre, Chapman, Bennett-Parker and Seifeldein involved a temporary police presence on school grounds until the end of the year, increased funding for SSOs, funding for student supports including restorative practices, more and the addition of School Safety Coaches. The previously approved mental health positions and resources would still be a part of this plan.
The timing of the release left some members of council and school officials perplexed and with the impression that a decision had been rendered prior to the discussion even taking place.
“Why were we talking about it if minds were already made up?” Councilor Amy Jackson said. “If you knew what you were going to do, why did we still go through three hours of what just happened?”
Toward the end of the discussion, Chapman made a motion, seconded by Jackson, to temporarily restore SROs under the previous MOU while transitioning to an alternative approach. The motion passed 4-3, with Aguirre, Bennett-Parker and Seifeldein maintaining their opposition.
Chapman argued that “We have to do something coming out of here tonight” and that moving forward it is still possible to find an approach that does not involve SROs.
“I’m confused why we can’t have a future that has a different model. We do that in education all the time … but we don’t talk about that, we talk about SROs and that being a permanent solution,” Chapman said.
City staff will return to council with a cost estimate of the plan outlined in Aguirre, Bennett-Parker, Chapman and Seifeldein’s statement.