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District wants public input on the future of school resource officers

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

The role of school resource officers in Harrisonburg City Public Schools will soon be up for debate in the public sphere, as a task force the district established to examine its contract with the Harrisonburg Police Department is planning a “listening tour” to gather community input. After providing opportunities for public input, the group will present a recommendation to the school board in May.

Sal Romero, the district’s director of equity and community engagement, announced in the Harrisonburg School Board’s work session on Tuesday that the task force is recruiting additional members from the community to help design the listening tour. Those members could include representatives from the Northeast Neighborhood Association, Harrisonburg Police Department and NAACP, as well as students and their families, he said.

Romero, who also is the city’s vice mayor, told The Citizen after the meeting that once the task force’s roster is filled out, they will identify the listening tour’s scope and focus groups over the next few weeks. 

“We are looking to examine the role of the SROs,” Romero said in the work session, adding that they “also recognize the repairing of relationships” that may need to take place between law enforcement and the community.

Superintendent Michael Richards said school districts across the country — prompted by national discussions about racial justice and police conduct — have begun reexamining the concept of having officers in schools.

“Some have jettisoned SROs. We wanted to take a more reflective approach, a more community-based approach to get ideas,” Richards said. 

School board members Kaylene Seigle and Obie Hill serve on the task force alongside division staff. 

“It’s a good, fresh start,” Seigle said. 

“We are all ears to listen in on what the community would like to present,” Hill said.

Richards said if the task force recommends continuing working with school resource officers that the district might focus their attention on patrolling schools’ exteriors and property rather than monitoring students. For instance, that might include “making sure that campuses don’t have persons who are not authorized coming onto them during school hours,” he said. 

Seeking to improve services for students with autism

The school board also heard an update on the division’s partnership with the Autism Center for Excellence at Virginia Commonwealth University. Harrisonburg City Public Schools is one of six divisions in the state with which the center is currently working to improve education and support services for students with autism. 

The partnership is set up as a three-year grant during which the center provides technical assistance, professional development and research on how to best educate students with autism. 

Students with disabilities in the city are performing below state-wide averages in reading, math, science and history and performing slightly above those averages in writing, according to data from the 2018-19 school year that Alison Shaner, the division’s director of special education, presented to the board Tuesday. 

So far, special education teachers and instructional assistants have taken online courses on topics including behavior, communication and evidence-based practices. More training sessions are planned for all teachers across the school district.

Shaner said the primary question is: “how do we create a high-quality, cohesive continuum of services for students with autism?” 

That includes both supporting the students’ academic performance and “helping [them] to build robust, involved, meaningful relationships within their communities … and within their schools.”

Also in the meeting:

  • Richards announced that about 75% of the district’s families would like their kids to return to the school buildings when that option becomes available, while 25% of the indicated that they’d like to continue remote learning. Preschoolers through 2nd graders, as well as 6th graders, could be given the option to return by the end of March.
  • Tom Hartman, director of public works, told the school board that a two-mile trail connecting Harrisonburg High School, Bluestone Elementary School, Hillandale Park, Thomas Harrison Middle School and Westover Park should be completed this December.

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