Parents and students in Albemarle County are divided over the possible return of school resource officers.
It’s been 2 1/2 years since the county school board unanimously voted to remove officers from schools, citing their ineffectiveness and incidents of discrimination. But amid widespread complaints of misconduct, particularly at Albemarle High School, the school board is being asked to reverse course.
A school resource officer would “bring safety” and serve as “a deterrent,” parents said at a meeting on Jan. 10 with school board member Judy Le.
Not everyone agrees.
“This cannot be allowed,” Amanda Moxham, whose children used to attend Albemarle High and who now serves as a member of the Hate Free Schools Coalition dedicated to eliminating racial discrimination at county schools, told The Daily Progress on Friday. Moxham said that in her personal experience school resource officers intimidate students, making the schools they’re meant to keep safe feel unsafe.
Another parent attending a school board meeting on Jan. 12 said they opposed the reinstallation of officers at schools and quoted the school board’s 2020 decision to remove the officers: “If anything, the culture of our schools is the problem. The leadership is the problem.”
A student at Albemarle High School pointed out that even if school resource officers returned, students would still feel more comfortable reporting misconduct to faculty and staff.
“There’s a lot of apprehension about an SRO, because we don’t know much about them, and probably wouldn’t be very comfortable talking to them,” Albemarle senior Weining Ding told The Daily Progress on Wednesday. She was a rising sophomore when the school board voted to remove officers in 2020.
Schools Superintendent Matt Haas told The Daily Progress last week he intended to ask the school board to reverse that 2020 decision and reinstall an officer at Albemarle High School after parents there complained about sexual assault, weekly brawls, truancy, vaping and more. If one is effective, he said he would try to add more.
“We’re going to try to start building things back,” Haas said. “I think … working with the police department to hire and assign a highly effective, well-trained school resource officer to work in that community will be very important.”
Parents have told The Daily Progress that at least one incident of sexual assault occurred at Albemarle High School in October and involved the school’s junior varsity football team. While the school division has acknowledged an “incident” occurred, it has never identified it as sexual assault.
The Albemarle County Police Department told The Daily Progress that multiple minors were charged with crimes in connection to the incident but declined to say how many received charges or what the charges were. The minors were referred to juvenile intake and the case was closed in November, authorities said.
Research on the effectiveness of school resource officers is mixed. A State University of New York at Albany study shows that officers don’t prevent school shootings but can prevent other kinds of violence, such as hallway fights. The same study found that the presence of officers intensifies the use of disciplinary actions such as suspensions, expulsions, police referrals and arrests. Black students are twice as likely to face those repercussions than white students, the study found.
An Oxford University study from 2022 found that officers in schools with more white students tend to think of threats as external. For example, they worry about an armed intruder coming to the school. In schools with more Black students, officers viewed students themselves as threats.
Albemarle High School is the division’s most diverse school, though it is still majority white.
With that in mind, Moxham said, Albemarle schools cannot reinstall school resource officers “if the school board truly wants to support and align to the anti-racism policy.”
The division’s anti-racism policy acknowledges the inequality in students’ suspension rates and says all forms of racism are “destructive to the Division’s mission, vision, values, and goals.”
Haas told The Daily Progress that an officer assigned to Albemarle High School would function differently than officers at other schools.
“They do not act as administrators or disciplinaries in school,” Haas said.
Just how a school resource officer works in a particular school depends on the memorandum of understanding between the school division and the law enforcement agency that hired the officer. All school resource officers are sworn law enforcement officers with arrest powers; about 91% of them carry guns, according to a November 2021 Education Week article.
County schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said there is no current memorandum of understanding between the school division and the county police department, and there hasn’t been one since the officers were removed in 2020.
Moxham said the new school resource officer that Haas has envisioned does not resemble the ones of the past, based on her own personal experience.
When Moxham’s son was in middle school at Lakeside, she said, he brought an X-Acto knife blade to school for an art project. Moxham was called to the principal’s office where an officer was present.
Moxham said her son was only issued a warning because the blade was so short.
But, “if it had been 1 inch longer, he would be going to jail, is what she said,” Moxham recalled. “She was there to intimidate him.”
Ding, the Albemarle High School senior, said she doesn’t believe a school resource officer would be able to properly respond to the incidents that are being reported at her school, specifically fights and vaping.
“I don’t feel unsafe, because I think there are a lot of people already stationed at the school to help in situations like this,” she said. “The only time I wouldn’t feel safe is when we have school shooting threats.”
And the school division isn’t considering a school resource officer because of school shootings.
Ding said she does support other measures that Haas has taken, such as hiring a dean of students and a Title IX coordinator.
“I’m pretty sure that most of my administrators are male. … It’s good to have that kind of system where you can talk to someone if that kind of thing happens to you,” Ding said.
And Ding said she would feel more comfortable talking to a teacher or other faculty or staff about safety than a school resource officer charged with students’ safety.
Before any officer can be hired, Haas must add one to the draft budget he presents to the school board in the spring and the school board must approve that addition.
It’s unclear how much of an appetite the school board has for Haas’ plan to reintroduce school resource officers.
School board member Katrina Callsen told The Daily Progress she is interested in “reviewing his proposal.” Other members of the school board declined to respond or were not immediately available for comment.
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