Your Views: Public debate, private scheming

Your Views: Public debate, private scheming

To the editor:

After City Council voted to restore school resource officers on Oct. 12, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request related to the proposal that four city councilors privately composed for discussion at that meeting. Adding to your Nov. 18 report on the same topic, the 1,800-page response to our FOIA request sheds considerably more light on their disturbing behavior leading up to, and even during, the meeting.

It also reveals much about the state of City Council-Alexandria City Public Schools relations, the undue influence of two activist groups on City Council affairs and the private views of recently elected incoming council members.

We start with the behavior of four current city councilors – Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, Canek Aguirre, John Chapman and Mo Seifeldein – the “Gang of Four” that voted to remove SROs from the schools in an April budget meeting.

After escalating student violence, including an after-school shooting and a student caught bringing a loaded gun into Alexandria City High School, School Board Chair Megan Alderton emailed council pleading for restoration of the SROs. Subsequently, Mayor Justin Wilson invited ACPS officials to re-open the issue for discussion at the Oct. 12 City Council meeting. The only response Alderton received was a series of questions from Aguirre seeking to show ACPS had violent incidents in the past.

Over the preceding weekend, Chapman led the Gang of Four in the development of a new proposal in response to ACPS’ request. Within that process, they seemingly violated the spirit of the open meetings provision of FOIA, if not the law itself, by communicating together in real time using email, text and Google Docs, a cloud-based computer application that allows several people to collaborate on a document at the same time. In fact, the four often shared comments and edits within minutes of each other.

Perhaps worse, their resulting proposal was based in part on input from two ideologically anti-police groups, Grass Roots Alexandria and Tenants & Workers United, to the exclusion of all other stakeholders, including ACPS, the Alexandria Police Department, their other three council colleagues and the rest of the community. The FOIA documents show that these two groups were not only aware of the developing proposal but were coordinating media efforts with the four councilors.

Once the councilors issued the resulting press release – only 10 minutes into the council meeting! – they had signaled their majority vote on a proposal that had neither been introduced in the council meeting, nor discussed with anyone outside their closed group.

The FOIA documents also reveal that the statement came as a shock to the mayor and ACPS officials. The mayor’s anger that evening was borne from the attempted ambush of ACPS. Members of the media who received it were also stunned, asking questions about things like who was involved in its preparation and whether it mooted the hearing. None of the four councilors responded.

And it gets worse. During the council meeting, the Gang of Four continued their own private meeting via text, again, seemingly in violation of open meetings requirements, and further disrespecting their fellow councilors and the ACPS officials who had been invited by council to speak on the issue.

The press release caused turmoil among council and ACPS officials behind the scenes. The numerous texts and emails flying around during the council meeting suggested that the four councilors were not paying any attention to the testimony from Alderton, ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., ACHS Principal Peter Balas, ACPS’ security director or acting Police Chief Don Hayes.

At the end of the council meeting, Chapman reversed himself to vote for restoring SROs, but only for the current school year, joining Wilson and Councilors Del Pepper and Amy Jackson. Hutchings sent a conciliatory text to Chapman saying the vote was fair and he looked forward to working with him on the issue. Chapman immediately responded with these words: “Look to someone else. I’m done with yall (sic).”

The texts in the FOIA response also revealed conversations including incoming councilors. In one instance, an activist texted a new councilor a Twitter series saying that the deployment of SROs had led to “dehumanization of Alexandria VA BIPOC youth” and “I’m done being sensitive,” specifically targeting parents.

In response, the new councilor said it “sounds like a conversation [we new councilors] had last night. The reaction to [the after-school shooting] yesterday was appalling.” The context suggests that the new councilors were turned off by the community’s justifiable anxiety about the shooting, the confiscated loaded gun and escalating violence in other forms in the schools, never expressing concern about the underlying violence.

In 1,800 pages of FOIA documents, we were unable to locate any concern about school safety from SRO opponents. Rather they targeted Wilson in particular with hateful emails, one accusing him of “by default carrying water for violent, harmful, toxic, hateful, Alex Dem-flavored white supremacy” for supporting SROs.

In stark contrast, the sentiment of the others who weighed in, including former Mayor Bill Euille and residents from all corners of our diverse community, reflected overwhelming support for restoring SROs.

We note that Wilson and Jackson have school-aged children in ACPS. None of the Gang of Four and none of the incoming councilors have school-aged children. This may help explain the split votes on school safety issues. It should also put the ACPS community on notice that City Council may be even more activist on school matters when the new council members are sworn in next month.

-Frank Putzu, Bill Rossello, Alexandria