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Legislature looks at requiring police in every school

Legislation that would require every public school in Virginia to have a full-time police officer on duty is expected to come before House and Senate committees this week.

Sen. Bill DeSteph and Del. Karen Greenhalgh, both Republicans from Virginia Beach, filed matching bills in the Senate and House of Delegates that would require each school district to set up contracts with their local law enforcement agency to staff every school with at least one school resource officer.

Both Greenhalgh and DeSteph said they expect their bills to be taken up in committee this week.

An SRO is “a certified law-enforcement officer hired by the local law-enforcement agency to provide law enforcement and security services to Virginia public elementary and secondary schools,” according to state code.

The bills state that any division that does not fully comply with the staffing requirement is ineligible for any grant or waiver from the state.

“It’s just for parents to know that their children are safe,” Greenhalgh said on Thursday.

The bills are similar to legislation passed in Florida after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. If passed, the legislation would significantly increase the number of schools with a full-time law enforcement officer on duty, particularly in elementary schools, which in many localities have one officer who monitors several schools.

Advocates for the legislation say it is a safety measure, while opponents say it’s legislative overreach and runs the risk of criminalizing typical schoolhouse misbehavior.

“We should have safety and security across all of our schools,” DeSteph said.

The bills mark a departure from some of the police reform efforts that came after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin.

SRO programs frequently find themselves on the pendulum of public opinion. School shootings typically fuel calls for greater police presence on campus, but when officers end up arresting students or are caught on camera using excessive force, the demands for their ouster grow.

A handful of school boards in Virginia eliminated school resource officers over the past two years.

Charlottesville City Schools and Albemarle County’s school boards both eliminated their SRO programs in 2020, along with the Arlington County School Board in 2021.

In May of 2021, the City of Alexandria voted to remove SROs, but reversed course in October after several incidents raised safety concerns.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has made the legislation a priority, urging lawmakers to take action during his address to the Joint Assembly on Jan. 17.

“The classroom environment must be safe, so children can learn,” Youngkin said. “I’m asking members of this General Assembly to prioritize school safety by putting a school resource officer on every campus.”

Youngkin included $50 million for school districts to hire SROs in proposed amendments that he made to the $158 billion two-year budget that he received from former Governor Ralph Northam.

According to DeSteph, the cost for putting an officer in every school is about $40.3 million. Half of that would be paid by the state and half by local school districts.

DeSteph said his staff’s research shows 705 public schools in Virginia do not have an officer, about 36 percent of the state’s schools.

Opposition to the bill tends to run along two lines: concerns about legislative overreach and concerns about turning typical misbehavior into something that involves law enforcement.

Sen. Chap Peterson, D- Fairfax City, often a swing vote in the Senate, said he opposes the bills because they overstep localities’ control of their own school districts.

“There are extraordinary situations, like last year with reopening schools where we have to step in because the school boards aren’t moving on it,” Peterson said. “There may be a need for an SRO (in every school), but I don’t know.”

Del. Jeffrey M. Bourne, D- Richmond, said the proposals raise concerns about children having negative encounters with police officers at a young age.

A study conducted by Virginia Tech and cited in the 2019 Commission on Youth study on SROs reported 2.3 out of 1,000 students were required to appear before a court intake officer after in-school encounters.

Virginia Tech’s analysis also found that minorities and students with disabilities were disproportionately referred to law enforcement.

The ACLU of Virginia has come out in strong opposition to the bills.

“Policing in school disproportionately targets students of color and students with disabilities, and the reality is that the presence of an SRO undermines the academic environment and allows for the escalation of routine administrative discipline,” said ACLU of Virginia Policy Director Ashna Khanna.

“Virginia should be talking about how we divest funding from SRO’s and reinvest in school nurses, counselors and other supportive services,” Khanna said.

Bourne said lawmakers should view school safety as a holistic issue with structurally safe buildings and adequate funding for mental health and school counselors.

“We all have a collective responsibility to make sure our children are safe,” Bourne said. “For me, that does not necessarily mean putting more guns and law enforcement in the classroom and schools.”

Greenhalgh said local school boards could create policies to ensure SROs are achieving their intended purpose.

“I certainly hope parents don’t feel fearful, and I am hoping that having law enforcement officers in the elementary school will serve more of a community interest,” she said. “Have the children comfortable and know that the police are there to protect them, and maybe take down some of the fears that children have.”

This article was published originally in The Virginia Mercury, an independent, nonprofit online news organization covering state government and policy.


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