By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
With school resource officers returning to Alexandria’s middle and high schools through the end of the school year after City Council’s Oct. 12 decision, the School Board discussed the short-term, and potentially long-term, future of the program at a meeting on Nov. 11.
SROs, a set of armed police officers stationed inside the city’s secondary schools, were at the center of an intense community debate even prior to City Council’s decision in May to reallocate the $800,000 in police funds for the program as part of its FY2022 budget. Since May, debate has centered on both the process by which SROs were removed – council decided to defund them even though Alexandria’s elected School Board had discussed the issue and voted to retain the program – as well as the substance.
Some members of the community have argued that SROs are a necessary safety measure for students, while others maintain that the presence of armed law enforcement officers in school buildings presents a threat to students of color and students with disabilities.
Last month, council voted 4-3 to reinstitute the SRO program through the end of the 2022-2023 school year in response to a series of fights involving large numbers of students and one case of a student bringing a gun onto Alexandria City High School’s campus. Simultaneously, work will be done to reevaluate the role of armed police officers in ACPS and focus on social and emotional supports and mental health services, into which council had originally voted to invest the $800,000 taken from SROs.
At the Nov. 11 School Board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. and his team provided an update on the SRO program and the school division’s next steps prior to the end of the school year.
According to John Contreras, director of safety and security services for ACPS, the five SROs have been reassigned to their positions in ACHS, the high school’s Minnie Howard campus, Francis Hammond Middle School and George Washington Middle School.
The program will operate under the memorandum of understanding with the police department that the School Board approved 6-3 in November 2020, although ACPS and APD are working to make slight revisions to the document, according to Contreras.
“A large majority of the sections are staying intact, but most of the revisions are providing more fine detail as to what the roles are more clearly for ACPS and what the roles are more clearly for APD when SROs are in our buildings,” Contreras said.
The MOU from November 2020 included several changes designed to address concerns around the role of law enforcement in school and a perception of inequitable treatment of Black and brown students.
For instance, SROs are no longer able to question students without the presence of a school administrator, and they must verify a student has contacted a parent or guardian before questioning them. SROs can now only access student records with the written consent of a parent or guardian, or if the student is 18 or older. They also cannot carry long-arms – shotguns, rifles or other larger firearms – although they still carry sidearms.
School Board member Christopher Suarez said that whatever document comes out of the MOU revision process needs to be dynamic enough to fit any policy model for the SRO program.
“Regardless of whether the SROs are in the schools, there are always going to be interactions between the police and students. The MOU is always going to have to exist, and the MOU is always going to have to account for those situations,” Suarez said. “… I think we want that document to be a flexible document so that depending on where the policies [are] with different councils, different school boards, we can have what we need.”
School Board member Ramee Gentry asked about not only the program but the data collection and quarterly reports that were part of the MOU the School Board approved last year. The next quarterly data report will be given to the board in January.
“Part of what had originally been devised last November was an expectation of a certain kind of quarterly reporting that would happen, but that was based on the assumption that the MOU would have SROs in the schools, which isn’t in fact what happened for the majority of the first quarter,” Gentry said.
Hutchings responded that ACPS will be analyzing data three separate times prior to June 2022 “so that by June we’re able to provide the board, as well as the community, with some insight into progress and some data points.”
ACPS will be collecting data on disciplinary incidents that occur in schools on a monthly basis, the type of infractions that are occurring, how many phone calls have been made to the police and 911 and how often the police get involved in incidents on school grounds, according to Hutchings.
The school division is also looking to establish focus groups that will provide anecdotal data and various perspectives on the SRO program and an SRO taskforce.
Suarez said that a renewed focus on data collection is welcome and that both sides of the SRO debate were predicated on there not being enough data. But he warned Hutchings and ACPS staff that the last year of public debate proves data can also be interpreted quite differently.
“We have some parameters around what data is being collected, but I think different people in the community are going to have different criteria and different interpretations of that data,” Suarez said. “… I think it’s an opportunity for us, but there’s a lot of big issues we’re going to have to deal with.”
Hutchings agreed with Suarez’ assessment, although he stressed that when it comes to data collection ACPS is in “crunch time” due to the June 2022 date set by council.
“I just wanted to plug that it does take time to have the necessary data and to be able to interpret the data appropriately and to be able to have a period of time to actually see if there are trends that are happening. Those are things that just don’t happen overnight,” Hutchings said. “I think this whole way we’re doing things now, I wish we had started doing this last year, but that’s over. We have to start from where we are.”
Looking to the end of the school year, Hart said that if the program was not reinstated, ACPS would move to a “call for service” model like it did after council’s vote in May. Without SROs on site, ACPS would instead call APD to respond to situations that warrant a police presence.
Several board members also had commented about the last few months of tense communication between council and the board. Suarez called the last year “a whipsawing of the community” and expressed hope that the board and council entering office in January will be able to reestablish a more “thoughtful discussion” about the program.
Meanwhile, board Chair Meagan Alderton agreed with Suarez but remained steadfast that the School Board should look after the needs of students, not kowtow to another public body.
“That is what we were put here to do, and that needs to be honored, that needs to be respected, it needs to be acknowledged,” Alderton said. “… If that means we get to June of 2022 and somebody wants to come up with something different and the School Board has a different story to tell and has certain information that say[s] we need to do something different, we as a School Board need to figure out how we make happen what we need to happen for our kids, period.”