Charlottesville City Schools is ending its current school resource officer program with a goal to have a new model in place before school starts Aug. 19 — a decision that comes after weeks of protests locally and nationally about policing.
Many local activists, including from the Charlottesville chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement, have called on the division to end its memorandum of understanding with the police department that allows for school resource officers. Other school districts across the country also are reevaluating the use of resource officers, who are certified law enforcement officers and typically employed through the police department.
The role of police in schools was discussed at the city and Albemarle County School Board meetings Thursday evening. Numerous public speakers encouraged both boards to end the use of school resource officers, though not all were in favor of that move. Prior the meetings, hundreds of people emailed board members to urge them to remove the officers.
In a discussion late in the Albemarle meeting, board members expressed near unanimous support for either removing the officers outright or rethinking the program, though no decision was made, and some want to revisit the division’s dress code to ban the Confederate flag.
“I can’t ignore the fact that the mere presence of having police officers in our schools is traumatic for some kids,” said Kate Acuff, a county School Board member.
The city has four full-time school resource officers, two of whom are assigned to Charlottesville High School. What they can and cannot do in the buildings is governed by an MOU with the city police department, which was signed in 2016.
Charlottesville officials announced the end of the MOU on Thursday morning ahead of the city School Board meeting.
Laura Brown, a parent of a Burnley-Moran Elementary student who is mixed raced and has special needs, said she was disappointed in the city’s decision.
“The SROs in the school were nothing but positive with her and provided her with much-needed security and reassurance at a time when it was greatly needed,” Brown said at the meeting.
Other speakers cited research that shows SROs don’t make schools safer but rather can negatively affect students of color. Many encouraged the division to invest in counselors instead of officers.
Proponents of school resource officers have argued that they help to prevent crime and acts of violence in schools by building relationships with the students. They’re also responsible for securing the school and investigating alleged crimes. With school out of session for summer, resource officers already have been assigned to other patrols.
What role law enforcement will play in Charlottesville schools during the 2020-21 year and beyond remains unclear, though school officials stressed Thursday that community members will be involved in crafting a new model that will promote the safety and wellbeing of students and staff.
“I’ve heard that loud and clear from our principals and our teachers and our students, feeling secure in an environment is paramount to performing well in that environment, and we cannot lose sight of that,” city schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said. “A part of student and staff wellbeing is feeling secure, so they go hand in hand”
A series of feedback sessions will be held this summer, and the division will release more information soon. The School Board is expected to see a draft of the new model in early August, according to the timeline approved Thursday.
“I also want to tell our staff and our students: You know this is really to support you all, and we’re not going to leave anybody behind,” city School Board Chairwoman Jennifer McKeever said. “This is going to be student centered, it’s about student wellbeing and about building and school security. That is our goal, always. … I think we can really do something special.”
McKeever pressed Atkins for specifics on who exactly would be responsible for drafting the model and said the effort might require a formal committee or task force.
Board members said they have received hundreds of emails in favor of removing the officers but wanted to hear from the entire community.
“We need to get those voices that we don’t hear all the time, as well,” said board member Juandiego Wade. “That’s critical.”
Wade added that he has reached out to students he’s mentored over the years who said they are in support of keeping the officers.
Currently, the school divisions and police departments share the cost of the officers, who are employees of the department. Charlottesville allocated $301,231 for SROs next fiscal year, according to the city budget. Albemarle budgeted $264,592 for its five officers.
How those funds would be reallocated is not clear. Several speakers suggested during the city School Board meeting that they use the money to hire more counselors or to bring back the elementary school Spanish program, which was eliminated last month. That program reduction saved the division about $500,000.
In a joint statement before Thursday’s county School Board meeting, officials announced changes to the division’s MOU, which was last revised in 2008 and has been under review for months. The new version will be presented at a future meeting.
The division says the revised MOU defines the role of an SRO as primarily instructive and educational rather than as a deterrent, improves accountability measures and requires regular reports on SRO activities and interactions with students and staff.
Additionally, the MOU requires additional training that emphasizes mental health and crisis intervention support; disability awareness; implicit bias/racial bias attitudes and stereotypes; restorative justice; and cultural competency, according to the statement.
County schools Superintendent Matt Haas suggested that the board wait for the revision work to finish before deciding the program’s future and talked about some potential logistical factors in ending the program. The School Board also could request a thorough, independent review of the program, he said.
Haas said that approach would be similar to Charlottesville’s.
In the statement, board Chairman Jonno Alcaro and Haas said the SROs are vital contributors to the division’s ability to keep students and staff safe. They also highlighted a survey of high school students in which most said the presence of an SRO made them feel safer in school.
“Board members and our broader community are deeply concerned about reports of aberrant police behavior in Minnesota and in other parts of our country,” they said in the statement. “We believe these activities do not reflect what has been reported or experienced by staff or students in our schools. It is worth noting that no complaint about SROs has been filed with the school division in more than a decade.”
Alcaro said he would like a decision about the future of SROs and what would replace them by the end of the month. That decision should be unanimous, he said.
The county School Board has two retreats scheduled this month and will hear more information about the SRO program next week.
“I think we’re all on the same page,” Alcaro said. “It’s just the process of doing it.”
During the meeting, other board members said financial resources would be better spent on mental health supports for students.
“When our children return to school this fall, whatever that looks like, all experts agree that mental health will be a key issue, even more so than in past years,” board member Judy Le said.
Katrina Callsen said she wants to revisit a ban on Confederate imagery in the county schools, a decision the board punted on last year. Instead, Haas interpreted the existing dress code to ban the imagery.
“At this point, NASCAR — NASCAR — is banning the Confederate flag,” Callsen said.