Three years after they were removed entirely, a school resource officer is set to return to the halls of Albemarle County schools.
Schools Superintendent Matthew Haas’ request for a single officer – a $126,000 line item in the school division’s $257.3 million funding request – has proven controversial. (434) 960-9343
Parents have been split over the decision, which reverses the School Board’s unanimous 2020 vote 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 appears to have changed its mind.
The Board of Supervisors will discuss the school division’s draft budget at a meeting on Monday.
And while it is ultimately up to the supervisors how much money the county schools receive, county Chair Donna Price said how the school division spends the money it is allocated isn’t under her purview.
“I believe every supervisor, and I believe every person is or clearly should be concerned about public safety, and in particular, public safety at schools where our children are located,” Price told The Daily Progress before Thursday’s meeting. “But the decision as to whether to have school resource officers is a decision that falls under the jurisdiction of the School Board.”
The officer’s jurisdiction has been expanded as the school division has fleshed out its request to the county.
Originally, Haas told The Daily Progress in January he was going to propose adding a single officer dedicated to Albemarle High School in January after allegations of student misconduct at the high school emerged.
Today, the officer requested in the present funding proposal would work at 11 schools in the division’s northern feeder pattern, including Albemarle High which is in the northern feeder pattern.
“That person would be based at Albemarle High School, but they would be available at all of the other schools,” county schools spokesman Phil Giaramita told The Daily Progress on Thursday.
The reports of misconduct, especially at Albemarle High, have run the gamut: vaping in bathrooms, public brawls, even sexual assault.
Parents have told The Daily Progress that at least one incident of sexual assault occurred at Albemarle High 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.
County schools will keep their so-called school safety coaches if the new resource officer is introduced, the school division has said.
The coaches were introduced after the School Board voted to remove school resource officers during the summer of 2020. While they are not be armed and have no authority to arrest, the coaches are still charged with keeping schools and students safe; and they still have to complete a school safety officer certification through the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, among other division requirements.
Parents have been at odds over whether reintroducing officers is a good idea.
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.
“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 later in January. Moxham said that in her personal experience school resource officers intimidate students, making the schools they’re meant to keep safe feel unsafe.
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. She was a rising sophomore when the School Board voted to remove officers in 2020.
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.
Haas has said that the new school resource officer would function differently than officers at other schools.
“They do not act as administrators or disciplinaries in school,” Haas said earlier this year.
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.
The county school division does not currently have a memorandum with the Albemarle County Police Department, and has not since the school resource officers were removed in 2020.