RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Governor Glenn Youngkin wants a law enforcement officer in every school but a bill requiring localities to take action could meet bipartisan opposition in the Senate.
Currently, 705 schools in Virginia, or 38 percent, don’t have a school resource officer, according to Delegate Karen Greenhalgh (R-Virginia Beach). She said that includes 596 elementary schools, 30 middle schools, 30 high schools and 49 others.
Legislation sponsored by Greenhalgh that passed on a party-line vote in the House of Delegates this week would require each school board to enter into a collaborative agreement with a local law enforcement agency to employ at least one school resource officer (SRO) or an unarmed school security officer (SSO) in each building. Two schools that are close together with combined facilities would be allowed to share, as is sometimes done with nurses.
“We’re trying to make it as flexible as possible so that the school boards and localities can do what’s best for their students and we’re just trying to make sure they’re all safe,” Greenhalgh said.
Greenhalgh said schools that enter into an agreement by August 2022 would meet the requirement, even if they initially struggle to recruit officers.
“The goal is to try to get the positions filled of course as quickly as possible but no school is going to be penalized because they couldn’t get enough officers in their schools. That was one of the concerns that came up because SROs are law enforcement and those positions are hard to fill,” Greenhalgh said.
Governor Youngkin celebrated the passage of the bill, which was included in his legislative agenda, in a Facebook post earlier this week. He said, “Today on #SRODay, I am proud to announce that Delegate Karen Greenhalgh’s bill HB873, a bill to put a School Resource Officer in every school, has passed the House! We’re so grateful for all the work School Resource Officers do every day to keep our students safe.”
Senator David Suetterlein (R-Roanoke) said the mandate would put financial strain on localities, including rural districts that he serves.
“I look forward to working with the governor to find ways to provide the resources to do this but I can’t vote for an unfunded mandate,” Suetterlein said.
Senator Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach), who introduced the defeated bill, said he included budget amendments directing the state to cover the entire cost in an ongoing manner. He said if the money wasn’t approved, he would’ve taken a different approach.
“Anyone saying this is an unfunded mandate is inaccurate,” DeSteph said.
Governor Youngkin’s budget amendment would not cover the total cost of additional SROs or SSOs, according to Greenhalgh. If approved, it would provide $51.6 million over two years in one-time funding for incentive grants, which require a local match that is adjusted based on ability to pay.
The Department of Criminal Justice Services estimates that the average annual cost to employ a new full-time SRO is $125,000, including salary, benefits, equipment, the vehicle and training.
According to the House bill’s impact statement, “Actual costs can vary widely and depend on the locality in which the SRO is employed…Any actual fiscal impact to local school divisions is indeterminate.”
Some argue that money would be better used for support staff like school counselors and social workers. At least two school divisions in Virginia have opted to remove SROs from schools amid broader calls for police reform.
Ingris Moran, lead organizer with the youth group Tenants and Workers United, is among the advocates backing the push.
“School police presence also fuels that school-to-prison pipeline where students of color are most likely to be criminalized within the school system,” Moran said. “Having police present will just cause intimidation and fear.”
Greenhalgh said there is no explicit punishment laid out in the bill for localities that refuse to comply.
The bill’s impact statement furthers, “no school division that refuses or fails to comply with the requirements is eligible for any grant from the Commonwealth, Board of Education, or Department of Education.”
Greenhalgh clarified that the intent is to prevent localities that don’t enter an agreement from getting grant money specifically for SROs, rather than all state grants. She said she would be open to language that makes that more clear.