By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. asked the School Board to extend funding for the school resource officer program, which places police officers in the city’s middle and high schools, for another year to provide time to determine the program’s future. City Council will make a final determination on funding during its budget process next month.
According to Hutchings, the reason for the extension, which would take funding through June 2023, is to provide Alexandria City Public Schools with the opportunity to form a school law enforcement advisory group. The SLEP advisory group would analyze the SRO program and ACPS’ relationship with the Alexandria Police Department before presenting a proposal for the district’s bi-annual memorandum of understanding with APD in December.
“We are not anticipating that [advisory group] process to go beyond June of 2023, but we do know at this point there would be no way that we could form that group, have them meet, have them make recommendations prior to the city’s budget cycle ending and also prior to the existing funding for SROs concluding as of June of 2022,” Alicia Hart, ACPS’ executive director of facilities and operations, said at the March 24 School Board meeting.
The advisory group will form, meet and make recommendations about the future of ACPS’ partnership with law enforcement; conduct community engagement; allow “the respective elected bodies time to make a sound determination ”about the future of the SRO program based on the SLEP advisory group’s recommendation and maintain continuity of security until a final decision is made about SROs. The advisory group will be made up of city and ACPS staff, students, parents and other community stakeholders.
ACPS’ request is the latest chapter in a 16-month saga for the SRO program, which has become a source of ongoing tension for community members and the city’s elected leaders. In November 2020, the School Board approved a revised MOU with APD. However, in the aftermath of high-profile cases of police brutality, including the murder of George Floyd, communities around the country, including Alexandria, began to reevaluate the role of law enforcement.
As part of the FY2022 budget, City Council decided, in a contentious 4-3 vote, to defund the SRO program and reallocate the program’s $800,000 toward student mental health resources. The decision sparked fierce debate among residents. Some argued that SROs are a necessary security measure, while others argued they pose a physical and psychological threat to students of color.
According to a report released by ACPS in March, between August and December 2021 there were 18 arrests in ACPS, along with 71 incidents reported at Francis C. Hammond Middle School and George Washington Middle School, 59 at ACHS and 49 at Alexandria’s elementary schools. The report also indicated that Black students have been arrested within city schools at a much higher rate than their percentage of the student population, while Hispanic students have been arrested at a much lower rate than their percentage of the student population. White high school students were arrested at roughly their rate of the student population, but in middle school they were arrested at about half the rate of their demographic percentage. Almost all of those arrested were male.
Others have argued for a middle way, for keeping SROs as one component of ACPS’ safety and security strategy that could be used alongside mental health initiatives and restorative practices.
After numerous incidents at the start of the 2021- 22 school year – including a student bringing a firearm onto school grounds, videos of large fights and an alleged sexual assault – City Council temporarily returned SROs to schools in October, funding the program through June 2022.
A bright spotlight was turned on ACPS earlier in March, when National Review ran an online article about the alleged sexual assault and faulted school and city leaders for not notifying parents when the incident occurred. This has sharpened the debate about overall security within ACPS, as well as the school system’s communications policies.
In December, the two SROs at Alexandria City High School were put on leave after a former student alleged that an SRO engaged in sexually inappropriate conversations with them while they were at ACHS. Since then, APD has stationed detail officers at the school on a rotating basis as it investigates.
School Board member Michelle Rief asked about the status of the investigation during the meeting. Hart confirmed that SROs are still stationed in the middle schools and the high school’s Minnie Howard campus but refrained from commenting on the investigation.
“I don’t know if I can speak on that right now because I do know that there is an ongoing investigation with APD regarding that personnel matter,” Hart said. “What I can share is that the school is still supported by detail officers even though they are not within the building, similar to an SRO program.”
School Board member W. Christopher Harris asked ACPS staff whether new SROs were being trained to replace the two who had been put on leave. Hart said that decision is up to APD.
“That’s one of the charges we’re going to have with the advisory committee, is to really determine what our school law enforcement partnership will look like, whether it’s detail officers or continuing to have school resource officers in our schools,” Hutchings said.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Sindy Carballo Garcia, a youth organizer for Tenants and Workers United and an ACPS graduate, argued that ACPS needs to fully invest in mental health resources and restorative practices and include students of color in its advisory group.
“While it is great the superintendent has initiated a step forward to evaluate the SRO program and the safety in schools, this process needs to be fully transparent and have the inclusion of the impacted youth voices in it,” Garcia said. “We hope that you take this into consideration and come forward with a plan that is truly reflective of students that are being impacted and left behind.”
Hutchings will return to the School Board on April 21 to present the newly formed advisory group. School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said she hopes the group will be a permanent part of the conversation moving forward.
“Obviously, we have [a] fairly intentional purpose at this time, but I do think we should consider this being a longterm support and committee that we have for the school division just because safety and security is paramount and things change all the time,” Alderton said. “… There’s so much that happens that I think any opportunity we have to have some stakeholders who continue to participate with us and work with us on this issue would be beneficial.”