Alexandria will remove police from public school hallways

T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. The city council recently voted to remove school resource officers from the high school and Alexandria’s three public middle schools. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

By Hannah Natanson

May 16, 2021

The city of Alexandria will pull all police officers from public school hallways — ending a program that began nearly three decades ago — following a narrow and contentious vote by the city council earlier this month.

The council voted 4 to 3 on May 3 to reallocate nearly $800,000 used for the School Resource Officer program, which sent five officers into Alexandria’s one public high school and three public middle schools to patrol the hallways and keep order. The money will go instead toward initiatives meant to boost students’ mental health, although city officials are still working out the fine details with Alexandria City Public Schools. They have until July to come up with a spending plan, which will be subject to approval by the council.

Six people were employed in the SRO program, five as in-school police officers and one as a supervisor. One recently retired and the others will be reassigned, Police Chief Michael L. Brown said in an interview, although they will continue in their current roles through the end of the school year.

He said he knows some of the officers are “heartbroken” by the end of the program. But he emphasized that his department respects the actions taken by the city council and will work closely with school and city staffers to ensure that Alexandria’s schools remain safe despite the loss of the SROs.

“I want to make one thing abundantly clear: We’re not at odds with the council decision,” Brown said. “We are there to provide a service, we think there’s value in the service, but we do not want to re-
litigate this at this time.”

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The cancellation of the police program in the Northern Virginia district of 16,000 students follows a nationwide debate over systemic racism and policing in America that gained urgency after the killing of George Floyd last May. That debate led to pushes in several states, often led by students, to remove police officers from school campuses. Major school systems — including those in Minneapolis, Seattle, Oakland, Denver, Portland and Los Angeles — have either shrunk or eliminated their in-school police presence in the wake of Floyd’s death.

The Alexandria City Council’s vote came more than six months after the city’s school board voted 6 to 3 to retain the SRO program. In October, the school system and police department adopted major revisions to their memorandum of understanding that lays out the rules guiding the initiative.

The police promised to regularly collect disciplinary and policing data, break that down by age, race, sex and disability, then make the analysis public. The contract also established that students cannot be questioned by SROs unless their parent or guardian has been informed.

Both Schools Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. and School Board Chair Meagan L. Alderton (District C) declined to comment on the city council’s vote to remove the officers.

Alexandria schools spokeswoman Julia Burgos said in a statement that “we respect the City Council’s decision and will be working with our team to continue to maintain a safe and secure environment for students and staff.”

Advocates of the removal of police from school hallways — including some Alexandria students — celebrated the council’s decision as a major and unexpected win, given the school board’s earlier vote. Some current and former students say the officers’ presence made them feel uncomfortable. They also pointed to national data that suggests keeping police in schools can fuel the school-to-prison pipeline for students of color.

“Going between classes, or arriving at school, you’d see [the officers] everywhere,” recent T.C. Williams High School graduate Sindy Carballo, 19, who is Latina, said in an interview. “To see an armed person on the school grounds, it made me feel what our communities are feeling every day: like we don’t trust or feel safe around police officers.”

But detractors of the decision argue that the absence of police will make schools less safe. They note that, if a crisis arises, school officials will now have to call in police officers who will not have undergone special training on how to work with students, as the SROs did. Moreover, the officers will not know the layout of campus, nor the staff members, teachers or students.

How Alexandria police came to patrol school hallways

In Alexandria, officials launched the SRO program as a response to the 1994 federal crime bill. That law, which provided 100,000 new officers and set aside billions to fund prisons, formed part of President Bill Clinton’s campaign to redefine the Democratic Party — often criticized for being too soft on crime — as an advocate for tough policing.

“Part of the reasoning [was] increased concern about safety in schools nationally,” John Porter, who was principal of T.C. Williams High School at the time, wrote in an email. “There was the local stabbing of a student after summer school one summer and the mass shooting at Columbine, to name a few of the issues.”

Porter, who opposes the cancellation of the SRO program, wrote that the initiative’s main goal has always been something other than safety. It “provided a great way for students to interact with police officers in a positive way instead of only when a problem/issue arose,” he wrote, calling the program “one of the basic forms of community policing.”

Since the beginning, SROs have been tasked with keeping peace in school hallways — for example, by breaking up student fights — as well as responding to internal or external threats and arresting any adults engaging in criminal activity on school grounds. At the start, police kept just one officer at one middle school.

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Today, the SROs undergo special 40-hour trainings offered by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, during which they learn how to respond to school shootings and interact with students in distress. The department also conducts a rigorous selection process, Brown said.

Brown said he and his staffers searched for officers who “can relate to kids,” and who see the job as a chance to improve young people’s lives. Brown admitted that not all SROs have been wonderful across the years, but said the most recent batch are fantastic.

In recent years, he said, the department has worked to ensure that the SROs look like the diverse community of students they’re meant to protect. The officers include one White man, one Black man, one Asian man and two Hispanic men, police spokeswoman Amanda Paga said.

Once installed in school hallways, officers — apart from doing things like fist-bumping students they know — restricted themselves to engaging with students on police-level matters, Brown said. That might include a hallway fistfight or somebody pulling out a weapon.

But administrative issues, such as a student who is running late for class, do not fall under the SROs’ purview. And they are not involved in disciplinary decisions or school suspensions, which data show disproportionately target Black and Hispanic students in Alexandria. Critics of the local SRO program have often pointed to suspension data in pushing to remove the officers.

The fact that SROs are not involved in suspensions was a point Hutchings, the superintendent, made repeatedly when he argued in October for retaining the program.

‘Caught in the middle’

Those opposed to police in schools point to national research showing that schools with more SROs see higher rates of drug- and weapon-related offenses and disciplinary actions — which have a particularly negative effect on students of color.

In Alexandria, data on school policing is extremely limited. That’s because, for decades, almost no information on the SRO program was gathered by the city, the police department or the school system. The revisions to the memorandum of understanding last year were meant to change that.

Asked to provide data to the city council ahead of the vote, the police department was only able to inform council members that the SROs made six arrests in the 2019-2020 school year. All of those arrested were 18 or older, and none of them went to prison, according to Paga.

Veronica Nolan (District B), vice chair of the school board, favors keeping the police in schools. She says there is simply not enough data to allow for drawing firm conclusions.

“Okay, I get what might be happening in Des Moines, Iowa, but what is the Alexandria, T.C. Williams data?” she said.

He was a champion of police in schools. A year after George Floyd, he’s changed his mind.

Mohamed E. “Mo” Seifeldein (D), the city council member who proposed removing the SROs, said he sees the paucity of data as another reason to remove police from school hallways.

“If we’re funding something, we need to justify it to our constituents,” he said. “Frankly, we’re spending nearly a million dollars on a program we have no data to back up.”

Brown, the police chief, said he has heard compelling anecdotal evidence for and against SROs. He has listened to students who feel surveilled by the officers. And he has listened to others who see them as mentors, even father figures. Outside school hours, two SROs at the high school coach a soccer team for some students.

Ultimately, Brown said, he thinks the school board and the city council are struggling to work through a very challenging issue, in a very challenging year for American policing.

“The data isn’t clear, and it’s understandably emotional, and there are very divergent opinions,” Brown said. “Yet they had to make a decision. And unfortunately the police department — and the SRO program, and most importantly the officers who really enjoyed doing this work — were pretty much caught in the middle.”