RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Calls to remove school resource officers are growing in the commonwealth as state lawmakers push for police reform.
Charlottesville schools have already announced their plan to get rid of SROs and Richmond’s School Board is taking up the issue at their meeting Monday night.
Richmond parent Rachael Deane, director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s “JustChildren” program, said an increased police presence in public education over the years has contributed to the school-to-prison pipeline. She said students of color are more likely to be introduced to the criminal justice system because of disciplinary incidents in the school yard.
“Having law enforcement in schools doesn’t always make students feel safer, in fact it makes them feel like they’re being targeted,” Deane said. “I think it’s time that we listen to some of the calls to divest in some of those security measures and invest in some of the supports that our students need to feel safe in schools.”
As state lawmakers prepare a package of police reforms and recommendations ahead of a special session expected in August, Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) is calling on school districts to cancel school resource officer contracts. Hashmi said decisions on SROs will ultimately fall to localities, not the state.
“There is a real need to assess their value and their purpose,” Hashmi said. “I would like to see SROs not be a part of the school system, not be a part of the disciplinary process.”
The push comes after the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida put a spotlight on school security, prompting then-House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) to appoint a special committee to look into the issue. Cox said the conversation led to major new investments in SROs, as well as mental health supports.
“They go hand-in-hand. What you don’t want is to totally defund one and leave out the other because I don’t think that would be nearly as effective,” Cox said. “Taking SROs out of schools I think would greatly hurt safety.”
Cox, who was a teacher for 30 years, said SROs are integrated into school communities and are often best-positioned to respond to an emergency.
A state grant program currently helps offset the cost for localities trying to take on additional officers. Bristol Virginia School Superintendent Keith Perrigan said he’s concerned the push to remove SROs will lead to a reallocation of that money, which he said supports two of six positions in his district.
“They’re one of the biggest assets we have,” Perrigan said. “If we do anything in Bristol, it would be adding additional officers instead of having them removed.”
Deane said those funds could be better used to hire additional school counselors and other support staff, especially as revenue losses from COVID-19 threaten new allocations committed in the last legislative session.
“We need to make sure that, as we’re making cuts, we’re still prioritizing student support,” Deane said.
Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston said each district should work with local law enforcement and move forward based on their needs. He said the VEA’s main concern right now is creating more equitable schools through various reforms that take effect July 1.
One law aims to keep students out of criminal justice system by ending decades of “zero tolerance” policies for disciplinary infractions in Virginia schools. Previously, principals were required to report even low-level offenses to law enforcement. This law restores discretion.
Additional legislation revises training standards for SROs and requires school districts to revisit memorandums of understanding with their law enforcement partners more frequently.