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Charlottesville ready to finalize plan for new school safety model without SROs

Nearly a year after voting to remove school resource officers from buildings, the Charlottesville School Board will hear details this coming week about a new path forward.

That new path could include hiring care and safety assistants who would monitor hallways and and build relationships with students, as well as a focus on division-wide training on restorative justice, adult social-emotional learning and other topics for all school staff.

During a recent virtual meeting, the division’s school safety committee formally recommended the model to schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins — the final step in a months-long process to determine how to replace school resource officers. The board’s meeting this Thursday most likely will be Atkins’ final one as superintendent before she retires May 31.

Atkins said the model shows a move away from allowing a student’s behaviors to become a cumulative black mark on their record.

“Each day becomes a new start for the student, not a rehashing of what happened three weeks ago,” she said. “It’s just so refreshing and encouraging to see our students as individuals and as valued, important members of our total school staff, and we approach their learning and their care in a manner that certainly demonstrates our support for them on a daily basis.”

The goal is to have all aspects of the plan in place by the start of 2021-22 school year. Board approval at Thursday’s meeting would allow the division to start the hiring process for the care and safety assistants, who are the backbone of the model.

Kim Powell, the division’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, detailed the committee’s recommendations during the recent committee meeting.

The care and safety assistants would be unarmed adults in the buildings who would have relationships with students, uphold the school’s code of conduct and work to address conflicts, mental health concerns and other issues, according to the presentation.

Similarly, the Albemarle County school division is planning to hire eight student safety coaches to replace school resource officers next school year.

The city’s school safety committee based the model in part on how the Toronto District School Board has approached school safety and security in recent years. Officials from the Toronto school system discussed that approach in a local public forum earlier this year.

“While these positions contribute to safety and care in schools, they are not the things that cause safety and care in schools,” said Adam Hastings, principal of Walker Upper Elementary School, at the meeting. “That happens when all of the adults are working together. As a principal, I look at this as a new resource. … In many ways, we aren’t going to do things differently; we’re going to do the things that we already do. We’re just going to do them well.”

Hastings added that these new positions — CSAs — wouldn’t change school culture alone.

“We change school culture when we work together as a school community,” he said.

To fund the new model, the division is planning to use the $301,231 it previously paid the Charlottesville Police Department for SROs. The planning and implementation process also would include agreeing to a new memorandum of understanding with the police department. Additionally, the division is planning to create in-house surveys and reporting tools to gauge student and staff perceptions of school climate and safety.

Lengthy process

School Board member LaShundra Bryson-Morsberger said during the meeting that the new model was a good starting place.

“As a community, we shouldn’t look at it like we created it and we’re done,” she said. “We’re going to have to revisit it, make changes and update it so that it fits our community. We’re creating something new, and we’re creating it so that our schools and our community work better. I think that we’re off to a good start, but it’ll still be work to keep it moving and to make sure it really addresses the needs that we have in our community.”

Bryson-Morsberger was the first board member to publicly call for the removal of school resource officers as protests about police brutality swept across the nation. Local activists also sought to end the use of armed police in schools. The board voted in June to end an agreement with the Charlottesville Police Department that placed officers in schools.

That kicked off a lengthy process to figure out what comes next. The school safety committee — composed of teachers, school administrators, students and community members — met 10 times since November to review state code, models in other school systems and survey data from students and staff.

“This was a difficult process to go through,” said Juandiego Wade, a School Board member who served on the committee. “We had a lot of varying input and ideas as we started on this, and I really feel good about the product that we produced. I think it’s what the community wants. They want that safety net but not the presence that we had.”

Following a public forum in January, committee members in March presented a broad overview of the model to the board, which was supportive. The three elements of the plan are people and positions; training and communications; and systems and relationships.

In a survey following that March meeting, most community members said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the proposed model. Many of the comments compiled in a 33-page document supported not stationing officers at schools, as well as the focus on mental health, though several wanted more details.

Others were concerned about fights in the schools and responses to emergencies, according to a summary provided at the meeting.

Since early March, school workgroups have been working through logistics and the details such as job descriptions for the care and safety assistants, what training will be needed and the systems and procedures that need to be reworked.

Plan provisions

For next school year, the division wants a total of eight care and safety assistants in place at Charlottesville High, Buford Middle and the Lugo-McGinness Academy. Five of the assistants would need to be hired while the other three would come from existing positions.

Charlottesville High School would have four assistants, one for each grade level.

“They can each have a cohort that they follow all the way through from ninth grade to 12th grade and help to reinforce and build those relationships,” Powell said.

Buford Middle School would have three assistant positions, two of which would be existing assistant positions that would be converted to the new role. An existing position at the Lugo-McGinness Academy would be converted to the care and safety assistant role.

Additionally, the plan includes hiring for 6.5 social-emotional support counselor positions, which is part of the Fiscal Year 2022 budget.

The ideal candidates will have at least a high school diploma, six months of experience working with adolescents and have relationships in the Charlottesville community, among other qualifications.

“We don’t want to rule out a young person … who would be very effective in the role,” Powell said of the experience level sought.

The CSAs will report directly to school principals but have opportunities for division-wide training with assistants in other schools, so they’ll feel like a team similar to other units in the school system.

Once hired, the CSAs would be trained in a range of topics, from de-escalation and mental health first aid to culturally responsive practices in areas such as race and gender. They also would complete selected training programs from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

To support these changes, the division is reworking an existing supervisor position in the central office to include safety- and security-related responsibilities. The hiring process for the facilities operations and safety supervisor is under way following the retirement of the current supervisor.

Powell said part of the recommendations includes a clear and consistent combination of startup and refresher training for staff and the CSAs. The professional learning plan is still in the works.

“We can’t just be one-and-done with these trainings,” she said. “There has to be a very intentional curriculum or structured training for folks who are new to [Charlottesville City Schools], but then there needs to be an ongoing cycle of refresher training in these areas.”

Powell said her team will work with Patrick Farrell, intervention and support supervisor for the city schools, and Jodie Murphy, a mental wellness facilitator in the division, to roll out the initial training courses.

“Just as importantly, how we keep it going with refreshers in a meaningful way to ensure this really does become very much embedded in the DNA of all the Charlottesville City Schools staff,” Powell said.

In addition to updating safety documents and crisis plans, Powell said mediation services and community partnerships with mental health agencies still would need to be defined to make the model work. The division also would need to draft a new memorandum of understanding with the police department to outline their relationship moving forward. State code requires schools and law enforcement work together in three areas: crimes that must be reported, threat assessment and crisis planning.

Powell said that implementing the model and ensuring all students have access to safe and supportive schools will require the whole community to work together.

“We know that’s the goal, and we’re looking forward to collaborating and working together both within our school community and also with the community as a whole to bring this model to life and hopefully be a standard and a model for others,” she said.


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