Harrisonburg schools superintendent suggests revising relationship with police department

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Harrisonburg City Public Schools will review — and potentially revise —  the district’s relationship with the Harrisonburg Police Department, which has four school resource officers placed across the schools. Superintendent Michael Richards brought the item to the school board’s work session on Tuesday.

And Richards said he intends to create a temporary, revised agreement with the police for the 2020-21 school year and will gather public input on a more permanent agreement going forward.

“I think it’s important that the community know where I stand on the matter of armed, uniformed police in schools,” Richard said. “I’m against it. But I want to proceed with some caution as we consider alternatives. I stand with those parents and guardians … who believe that my most important role is to protect all students from physical and emotional harm.”

Richards told The Citizen after the meeting that, practically speaking, they should have a temporary agreement in place before the school year begins on August 25.

Harrisonburg City Schools Superintendent Michael Richards. (file photo)

“I have experience that tells me I need [law enforcement’s] help. At the same time, I stand with the activists and community members” who say racism cannot be addressed by small changes, Richards said. “To my mind, this means finding an alternative to armed, uniformed police in our schools.”

Currently, the division has two officers stationed at Harrisonburg High School, one at each of the two middle schools, and one full-time Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., officer who works in all the city’s elementary schools. The officers are paid by the police department, and operate under the supervision of the police chief, although they are expected to work collaboratively with school principals.

Craig Mackail, chief operating officer, said staff had started examining their memorandum of understanding with the police in March, as the one currently in place was written in 2016 and needed updating. He said to his knowledge, police officers have been present in the city schools since the late 1990s. Until now, the agreement between the district and the police department has been created by school and police staff — without the input of the school board.

School board member Nick Swayne pointed out that the late 1990s was when Harrisonburg’s population was becoming more racially diverse. 

“I can understand why they [the community] would see that as a response, whether it was coincidence or whether it was actually a planned response,” Swayne said. “When our school division started to change in terms of its demographics, it was around that time.”

Swayne also said even though one justification for having officers in the schools is to respond to active shooters, that responsibility is not explicitly stated in the memorandum.

“It can’t be an expectation and not a requirement,” Swayne said.

Vice-chair Kristen Loflin said her mind “is very much not made up one way or another, and I want to do a lot of listening.” 

She asked Mackail for examples of when school resource officers responded to situations.

Mackail said the district has received a few threats of violence to their buildings over the years, mostly via social media, and the officer “coordinates that investigation.” Other times, they respond to people on the campuses “that aren’t supposed to be there. And the days of just the principal going out and handling that are over.”

In the event of a school shooting, if there wasn’t an officer in the school, Mackail said “a big concern is response time.”

“I’m the safety and security guy, right? One of my main tasks is to keep our kids safe, and I work hard at that, and part of that is our relationship with the Harrisonburg Police Department and SROs,” Mackail said. “But I’m not naive enough to say to you that kids of color and kids not of color are not uncomfortable.”

School board member Kaylene Seigle said she was glad to be reviewing the policies, but she believes they have “a positive relationship with our law enforcement. I believe it’s more positive than it has been in the past.”

School board member Obie Hill said in his work as a counselor, he has tried to improve relationships between the officers and students.

“You have some students who live in environments where all they’ve seen [of police] is their parents removed, arrested or handcuffed and put in the back of a police car, or they’ve accompanied a social worker and removed them out of their homes,” Hill said.

Hill pointed to other districts across the country, such as those in Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, which are cutting ties with the police. He said that that may be necessary for some divisions and not others. 

Here, he said, “if it’s already right, we want to make it better … if something is wrong, we take it as fact, and we change that.”

Richards said while school resource officers in this district are not responsible for responding to disruptive behavior as long as the student is not committing a crime, Harrisonburg’s discipline records overall show a disproportionate number of “students of color being disciplined.” 

He agreed to compile and present that data to the school board and said the district’s strategic planning process – currently on hold because of the pandemic – would include “action steps” to address that disproportionality. 

Richards told The Citizen after the meeting that the disciplinary data would be made available to the public in a school board meeting, likely in August.

Toward the end of the meeting, the school board unanimously accepted a resolution “condemning racism and affirming Harrisonburg City Public School’s commitment to an inclusive school environment for all,” which includes building diversity on staff and examining the curriculum to ensure accurate representation of the oppression and contributions of African Americans and other marginalized groups.

Budget adjustments

The school board unanimously accepted amendments to the fiscal year 2021 budget that begins July 1. This comes after the Harrisonburg City Council announced last week it would reduce the city’s contribution to the school’s operating budget by $1.1 million

The district will primarily make up that difference by cutting in half a planned 3% raise for staff. That 1.5% salary increase will go into effect in January. 

Other cuts to be made include:

  • About $435,000 in the district’s “student transportation transfer” to the city, which was to be used for school bus purchases and now-reduced raises for school bus drivers and assistants;
  • $160,000 for a new “Jump-In Program” for elementary schools that has not yet been implemented;
  • $105,000 for “Discovery Education” software;
  • And about a $39,000 reduction in the district’s contribution to Massanutten Technical Center.

Between lost city and state revenue that will be only partially ameliorated with federal CARES Act funding, Tracy Shaver, the district’s executive director of finance, said the district is looking at a total revenue reduction of about $2.9 million, including the $1.2 million the board cut last month in salaries and benefits from the budget for new positions that had not yet been filled.

The board also unanimously accepted an adjustment to the school nutrition budget, which was increased by $411,000 to continue the district’s meals program through the summer. Shaver said they expect to receive federal funds to reimburse that expense.

Also at the meeting:

  • Richards announced that the return to schools task force would present their plan for the coming school year in a special work session on June 30.
  • The board recognized retiring staff members Sharon Shuttle, director of early learning and smart beginnings; and Anne Lintner, principal of Bluestone Elementary School, for their many years of service.

Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. Thanks for your support.

Hosting & Maintenance by eSaner

Thanks for reading The Citizen!

We're glad you enjoy The Citizen! We work hard to publish one news story every weekday, and depend heavily on reader support to do that. We keep our overhead low; 85 cents of every dollar we spend pays local writers to cover local news in our lovely local community. Thanks for your support.