Dominique Williams and Andrea Barbour start their day at Charlottesville High School by greeting students and making sure to tell each, “Good Morning.”
“And it’s really a great opportunity to get the ball rolling along the day because a simple ‘Good Morning’ to a kid that might not receive that all the time could completely switch the direction of their morning,” said Williams, who is a care and safety assistant at CHS.
Greeting students in the morning is one method that Williams and Barbour are using to get to know CHS students. They are both care and safety assistants at the school, a new position this year that’s part of a new approach to school safety that replaced the use of armed police officers in buildings.
The Charlottesville and Albemarle school divisions overhauled their approaches to school security in the last year after the School Boards voted to end the use of school resource officers in buildings following nationwide protests about police brutality. The new models kicked off this year.
So far, students are responding well, Williams and Barbour said.
“We’ve been out here forming relationships with students, seeing positive change,” Williams said. “We’re getting an awesome reaction out of the kids as far as being willing to speak to us and being able to provide the things that they need to be successful in their day.”
There are eight care and safety assistants total in the school division, four are working in Charlottesville High School, three are at Buford Middle and one is at Lugo-McGinness Academy. Many of the assistants had existing relationships with the schools, which helped them get started in the new role.
Williams worked at CHS previously while Barbour worked with children in the community. When she was a CHS student, she was a star of the girls basketball team and went on to play for Virginia Commonwealth University.
Barbour said that she wanted to become a care and safety assistant because she’s connected to the community and had worked with children who are struggling with mental illness or behavior challenges.
“I love kids and I want to make a difference,” she said.
For Williams, the job encompassed everything he likes to do in school buildings.
“I felt like the job was my soul described,” he said.
The assistants are the core of Charlottesville’s new model, which also includes a focus on division-wide training on restorative justice, adult social-emotional learning and other topics for all school staff as well additional staffing to support students such as more social workers. The overall aim of the new model is to create safe and supportive schools for all students.
“The extra support is just going to be beneficial to students,” said Jason Lee, supervisor of facilities, safety and operations for Charlottesville City Schools. “I think that it was kind of long overdue as far as creating a safer environment for students.”
Lee said that he liked that the model was focused on more than physical security of buildings and dealt with student safety, which includes ensuring students can feel safe socially and emotionally.
“Focusing on that and putting that first is a very important tier of successful education for students,” Lee said.
The Charlottesville School Board approved the safety model in May at the recommendation of a committee of teachers, school administrators, students and community members, which met nearly a dozen times to review data, how other school systems approach the issue and craft its proposal.
The adults in the new safety models are primarily focused on building relationships with students.
“The main pillar of their existence in the schools starts with relationship-building,” said Jesse Turner, director of student services for Albemarle County Public Schools. “They’re not there to be a disciplinarian, they aren’t there to be a counselor or a psychologist. But, they should be a conduit if they’re working with a child and they see that a child needs more than what they can provide, they can help advocate and connect that child with the next level of intervention.”
The Albemarle School Board approved the new model as part of the budget process for the current fiscal year. In Albemarle County, the model includes eight student safety coaches stationed at the division’s three comprehensive high schools and five middle schools.
Turner said that all eight coaches were hired before the start of the school year and have a range of backgrounds from counseling to law enforcement. Turner supervises the coaches and assigned them to their respective schools.
“I really believe that with the individuals that we’ve chosen, if there’s one attribute that they have is that they all love children and they all have a desire to have a positive impact on children,” Turner said. “So I think that once they’re able to get into doing their work that they are going to be a main part of what happens at their school, so that’s what I’m most excited about.”
Before Turner became the director of student services, he served as principal in area middle and high schools, which highlighted the importance of relationship-building to him.
“Young people have a difficult time learning if they don’t feel safe and if they don’t have meaningful relationships with adults in the building,” he said.
The new safety models in Charlottesville and Albemarle are quite similar in terms of the training for the new positions and responsibilities.
Before the school year, both groups went through the state’s school security officer training as well as more specific professional development. In Albemarle, coaches received training on the anti-racism policy, culturally responsive teaching and relationship-building, among other topics.
The Charlottesville assistants went through training on mental health first aid, restorative justice and cultural competence, among other topics.
In addition to building relationships with students, the Albemarle coaches would have a range of responsibilities in the schools, from conducting Title IX investigations to inspecting campuses for compliance with safety codes.
Similarly, in Charlottesville, the care and safety assistants work to uphold the school’s code of conduct, monitor hallways, assist with incidents and security matters, resolve disputes between students, and address mental health concerns.
Williams said that during the school day, he and other assistants are making sure that students are where they need to be and are getting what they need.
“We’re encouraging them to go the right direction and do the right thing,” he said. “With us being vigilant and being in the hallway, I feel like they’re more encouraged to stay in the right place and do the right things.”
Turner said he is excited about having adults in the building who can just work with children.
“They do not have a caseload,” he said. “ … This is a person who has full range of the building and can be a resource for every child. I think that’s something that has been missing from school education for a while, especially in this area.”
Lee also thinks that the care and safety assistants will play an important role in schools and the success of buildings.
“We’ll be successful,” he said. “I’m confident about that and confident with the model as well.”
Williams has similar expectations.
“I expect this program to be just as successful,” he said. “I really hope we can set a precedent that will make other school systems want to go in the same direction.”