By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
The Alexandria School Board voted on April 21 to form a school law enforcement partnership advisory group to make recommendations on the future of the school resource officer program.
Composed of Alexandria City Public Schools students and administrators, the Alexandria Police Department and community members, SLEP will evaluate the partnership between ACPS and APD in regard to the SRO program. The group will then deliver a report to the School Board in December.
“We wanted to ensure that we had Alexandria Police Department representation, people who have safety and security backgrounds, people who have criminal justice backgrounds, people who have social justice backgrounds, as well as anyone who deals with or has any type of interest or passion in regards to Black males as well as females in education,” Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., said. “Those different areas of expertise will help us to grapple with a lot of these questions.”
The approved proposal includes additions to an earlier iteration introduced on March 10 that would have required SLEP to report directly to the board but failed in a 4-4-1 vote. Instead, SLEP will report to the superintendent. Some changes include the addition of a formal mission statement; four new members, making up 16 members in total; an added representative with a focus on Black male achievement and various updates on the representative selection process.
SLEP consists of a core advisory group and a participatory subcommittee group, forming a multi-tiered approach to decision making. The core group will participate in both core SLEP advisory meetings and subcommittee meetings and will vote on whether or not a recommendation should move forward to the superintendent.
The subcommittee group will participate in the subcommittee meetings, but not the core advisory group meetings. Members can vote on whether or not a recommendation should move forward from a subcommittee to the core group.
While both the core group and the subcommittee group will consist of students, parents, community members and staff members, only the core group will include law enforcement officials.
The decision follows City Council’s reallocation of $800,000 from the SRO program to mental health resources in May 2021, despite the School Board’s 6-3 prior vote to keep the program in place. Last fall, several violent incidents occurred on ACPS school grounds, including the arrest of a student with a gun at Alexandria City High School and an alleged sexual assault on the Minnie Howard campus, both in October 2021.
After the incidents last fall, council, reversed the initial decision in a 4-3 vote and temporarily reinstated the SRO program through June 30, 2022. The temporary reinstatement of the SRO program was subsequently extended through June 30, 2023 to allow ample time for the School Board and City Council to reconsider how public safety will be implemented within ACPS.
Part of SLEP’s role will be determining what it considers the most appropriate SRO model, which Hutchings said involves the different committees grappling with the issue both individually and together before bringing a final recommendation to the board.
“The goal is that we’re bringing in different perspectives around a table to have conversations specifically around, ‘What do we think is best in regard to resources and safety and security within each of our schools?’ So I think it would behoove us to make sure that these are the types of questions that our subcommittees and advisory committee will grapple with, and then they’ll be able to share with us some recommendations that come out of that,” Hutchings said.
School Board Chair Meagan Alderton noted that one of the heavy lifts of the group will be to combine existing policy with future aspirations.
“One of the things we’re going to have to consider is that there may be some APD policies that would need to be adjusted in order for us to meet where we want to meet,” Alderton said. “ … Things that can seem relatively easy … may [have] policy around that that we need to be aware of.”
The issue of transparency was a major point of discussion among School Board members during the meeting. Board member Kelly Carmichael Booz requested that SLEP provide the board with regular updates in advance of the official December recommendation.
While staff said this was possible, Hutchings emphasized that the point of the group is to reach a consensus without the board’s influence, so the updates would have to come from a designated SLEP external facilitator, who has not yet been selected.
“I would love to have some regular check-ins with the facilitator, just in terms of how the process is going, whether that’s a board brief or presentations at future board meetings,” Booz said. “I completely understand that that should be coming from the facilitator, but given how invested our community is in the safety and security of our students … I think those regular updates would be helpful.”
Booz also expressed support for making the SLEP meetings public to keep community members informed of the process, which centers around a topic that has proven to be controversial over the past couple of years.
“We also are in the business of transparency and making sure that we have access to the information that’s being provided,” Booz said. “ … I can understand the challenges of some actors maybe not taking that information or going in a different direction with it, but I think the vast majority of our citizens here in Alexandria are respectful and concerned and I think this is a topic that people are on very different sides of the aisle.”
But Hutchings said that the goal with SLEP is to ensure that members engage in authentic conversations, which could be compromised by the presence of a camera or voice recording.
Alderton added that the board will need to work with the facilitator to strike the right balance between which meetings should be public and which should be private. Alderton said she did not like the idea of recording SLEP meetings, but supported the idea that meetings discussing certain previously approved topics should be open to the public.
“Remember, this is a school and law enforcement partnership,” Alderton said. “There are things that we may not want to have discussed [publicly] because they could impact our safety position. But certain topics that are a little more nuanced, people just might want to sit and listen to the conversation, and we should probably just have the doors open for those, so we need to decide what those are,” Alderton said.
Board member Michelle Rief expressed concern regarding the one-week turnaround time for the group representative applications but acknowledged the desire to get the ball rolling on the advisory group.
Once the SLEP members are selected, Rief suggested releasing information to the public regarding the total number of applicants and how the group was selected based on the applicants’ experience.
“Any kind of information we can share with the community around that will just really help with the transparency process,” Rief said.
ACPS staff is working with its communications team and its family and community engagement team on the outreach portion of the application process. Applicants are encouraged to speak to their area of expertise, which staff said will be the major driving factor in who is selected.
Those interested in a position may apply for a core advisory member spot or a participatory subcommittee member position. Applications are open now and will run through May 2.
“In our role we absolutely can and should request some check-in points along the way,” Alderton said. “ … As we go through this process, things come up, we ask the questions, make any necessary adjustments and I think we can make this work.”