By Amy Will | [email protected]
A much-anticipated revised memorandum of understanding between Alexandria City Public Schools and the Alexandria Police Department to keep police officers in the city’s public schools was discussed Monday night during a joint work session between the School Board and City Council.
Last week, ACPS announced that it had reached a new two-year MOU with APD, pending final board approval tonight. Both City Councilors and School Board members appear eager to avoid a repeat of what happened two years ago, when the School Board reached an agreement with the police department on a revised MOU to keep armed police officers in city schools. But, in a rare move, City Council voted 4-3 on May 5, 2021, as it adopted its final budget, to defund the $800,000 allocated to the SRO program.
Then School Board Vice Chair Veronica Nolan scathingly criticized councilors for their decision at the meeting.
“… Without surveying the larger community, [council] made a decision that frankly
their backgrounds don’t qualify them to understand the ramifications of their actions.”
Nolan’s words proved prescient, as the lack of SROs – combined with the return to classrooms after COVID-19-necessitated a shutdown during most of the 2020-21 school year – resulted in an explosion of violence during the first six weeks of the 2021-22 school year.
Council then reinstated SROs temporarily at its Oct. 12, 2021 meeting, again via a contentious 4-3 vote.
Part of the process of temporarily returning the SROs in 2021 included setting up a committee to examine the larger issues of school safety and equity concerns that some had expressed regarding armed officers in schools.
That advisory committee, called the School Law Enforcement Partnership Advisory Group, was formed in March 2022. It was made up of city officials, staff, parents, students and other community stakeholders.
The group’s primary goal was to analyze the SRO program and ACPS’ relationship with the APD before drafting the new MOU to present to the School Board. The SRO program was extended through the 2022-23 school year as the group completed its process.
Deputy City Manager Yon Lambert and Chief of Facilities and Operations Alicia Hart presented details of the new MOU at Monday’s meeting, which included recommendations from the SLEP group.
Lambert and Hart emphasized that many modifications were made to the 23-page document during the past few months, and that the process contained multiple meetings
in March and April 2023.
“The purpose of the program is to establish a mutually beneficial framework that both schools and law enforcement can work within to achieve shared goals,” Lambert
said. “… updates were deemed necessary to add clarity, better define roles and responsibilities, and/or to incorporate School Law Enforcement Partnership Advisory Group feedback.”
Several areas of concern previously noted by the School Board and City Council were revisited by those in the room for further transparency. Namely, the roles of security officers versus resource officers, APD uniforms, accountability and communication of officers with ACPS families were up for discussion.
Perhaps the most poignant question came before any of those issues were addressed.
Immediately following Lambert’s presentation, the issue of ongoing trouble at
Bradlee Shopping Center was raised. APD Community Relations Division Captain Courtney Ballantine said stationing one of the three ACHS officers off-campus at Bradlee was not an option.
Ballantine referred to Bradlee as the “the elephant in the room.” He said that although an SRO at Bradelee is not a possibility, the department has reinforced its presence there.
Ballantine said engagement with local businesses is a priority and noted the shopping center’s McDonald’s recently moved from a private security company to APD detail after several violent crimes occurred on the property during the past year. ACHS senior Luis Mejia Hernandez died last May, less than two weeks prior to graduation, after being stabbed outside the McDonald’s in a melee in the Bradlee parking lot.
Ballantine offered reassurance that the officers patrolling Bradlee are in constant communication with the SROs at ACHS and stated in order to fix the safety issues, there needs to be a collaborative effort from the parents, mentoring groups
and others in the community.
“Everybody has got to be around the table,” Ballantine said.
Councilor Sarah Bagley asked for more clarity in section 4 of the document under “Roles and Responsibilities of Partner Organizations,” referencing the roles of School Security Officers versus School Resource Officers.
In a detailed explanation, the MOU states:
“The SRO is a duly-appointed, armed, Police Officer who works in the schools and is to provide immediate law enforcement assistance in the event of serious physical violence and crime. The SRO acts as both a deterrent and response to protect the safety of students and staff. The SRO supplements support of the school security staff (unarmed security staff) to ensure campus safety, where applicable.”
Differentiating between the two, the description for SSOs reads:
“A School Security Officer (SSO) is an unarmed security officer employed by ACPS, via full-time employment or security contract. The SSO is an extension of their respective school administration. The singular purpose of an SSO is to maintain order and discipline, and to assist school administrators with ensuring the safety, security, and welfare of all students, faculty, staff, and visitors to ACPS schools. SSO’s may physically intervene in fights, when warranted and as a last resort, to assist administration in restoring order and safety.”
Hart responded to Bagley’s question noting the SSOs’ ability to intervene in physical altercations are a new responsibility and amendment to the MOU. She also reiterated, unlike the SSO, the SRO is not involved in disciplinary actions, such as suspensions.
Branching off from Bagley’s inquiry, Councilor Kirk McPike mentioned the newly installed
ACPS weapons detectors and asked about the role SROs will play in the screenings.
Hart said that SROS will only become involved if an issue is detected during the initial walk through the detector.
“SROs will support secondary screenings. The initial screenings will be staff-focused
and not dependent on SROs,” Hart said.
School Board member Abdel-Rahman Elnoubi touched on an issue discussed at past
meetings about the officers in schools wearing uniforms.
“Can SROs dress down or can weapons can be concealed? What would it take?” Elnoubi asked.
Ballantine replied that the uniforms SROs wear now – a department-issued polo and pants – are casual and are similar to other jurisdictions.
“The officer has to be able to function at the school as they would anywhere else
in the city of Alexandria. We don’t want to limit them,” Ballantine said.
He added that APD has found having someone in uniform helps in controlling violence.
“[A uniformed officer] brings a presence in de-escalating a situation,” Ballantine said. Adding that APD has “done a lot of research in best practices” when it comes to officers in schools.
Although most everyone in attendance seemed to be in support of the MOU and the SRO program itself, a known voice of opposition spoke up.
Councilor Canek Aguirre reminded his fellow city leaders and School Board members that he does not approve of the SRO program, but believes the MOU “is good, lots of good changes.”
He highlighted one area of the MOU in section 5 under “Operational Procedures,” that describes the protocol for questioning students after an incident. It states:
“Prior to any questioning of a student, the student’s parents, guardian, or legal custodian shall be notified of the pending interview. The SRO/Police Officer will be responsible to verify that the student has had contact with their parent, guardian, or legal custodian. If the parent requests to be present or requests that the questioning not occur on school premises, the SRO/Police Officer should accommodate, with few exceptions.”
Hart added if a guardian cannot be present, the SRO may proceed with the principal or another administrator in the interview.
When asked about the MOU, ACPS Chief of School & Community Relations, Julia
Burgos responded in an email:
“Please note that the school division and police department have not yet unveiled an agreement, since discussions will continue about proposed changes to the MOU and the School Board has not voted on it.”
The School Board will hold a public hearing on the MOU at its meeting tonight, with a vote expected during the meeting.
If approved, the MOU will take effect on July 1.