Community Perspective: Harrisonburg public schools’ task force on SROs

A contributed perspectives piece by Boris Ozuna, Lead Community Organizer for the FUEGO Coalition

Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) announced in January 2021 the launching of a task force that would seek public input on School Resource Officers, or SROs.  As reported by The Citizen on Jan. 6, and on Feb. 17, school officials announced that among the multiple actions of the taskforce, it would conduct research, surveys, a listening tour, and provide recommendations to the school board about whether police officers should be present in school buildings and, if so, what their roles should be.

However, the invitation to participate in the task force sent by school officials only aims to examine standards of practice, with the goal of strengthening the relationship with HPD.

The invitation that FUEGO received says:

“We would like to invite you to participate in a Task Force on Re-Envisioning School Resource Officers at HCPS. We are committed to continuing our relationship between HCPS and the HPD. Our work will be focused on examining our standards of practice. You have been identified as being an important stakeholder in this work. This group will make recommendations to the School Board about ways to strengthen this relationship to best meet the needs of our school community.”

This message was echoed in the meetings of the task force that have taken place so far (five total). School officials and board members reiterated that neither HCPS Superintendent Michael Richards, nor the board, will consider the termination of the SRO program, even if these were to be among the task force recommendations. The general public might be under a different impression, thinking that HCPS is doing a full reexamination of the SROs by considering all options on the table, but that’s not the case. In the process of preparing this article, FUEGO received the following statement from Richards:

“I am not in favor of guns and badges in schools…I want to point out that there is a way to have the protection of the police without the guns and badges in schools. And so I don’t see our approach to this as contradictory or insincere. My vision for the Task Force is that creative minds with good intentions will figure out how to have both. Do officers need to be in the buildings with guns and badges? Do they need to be in the buildings at all? If they were to be in the buildings without guns and badges, what would be their broader educational role? These are the important questions to ask. I hope that we can come up with a solution that is better than those divisions that have either simply gone with the status quo and kept armed police in schools or dissolved the partnership with law enforcement altogether.”

Research shows that SROs increase the criminalization of Black, Brown, LGBTQ, and students with disabilities and fuel the school-to-prison pipeline for these populations. Also, evidence shows more harm is inflicted to marginalized students without an increase in school safety.

Children Arrested in Harrisonburg Public Schools

FUEGO published data released by HPD in June of 2020 showing that a total of 97 child arrests took place during  a period of 10 years (2010-2020) at three Harrisonburg public schools. The report shows that 54 arrests were connected to incidents that originated at Harrisonburg High School, 10 more at Skyline Middle School, and 37 at Thomas Harrison Middle School. Adult arrests (18 and over) are excluded from this report.

FUEGO also published the previous MOU between HCPS and HPD, which included that SROs were allowed to conduct “Terry Stops” (A Terry stop in the United States allows the police to briefly detain a person based on reasonable suspicion of involvement in criminal activity). That MOU was updated in September, 2020, and a temporary MOU was signed that expires at the end of the current school year. Back then, the school board stated that it will hold public discussions to determine the role of SROs going forward.

Per  Va. Code §22.1-280.2:3, all VA school divisions who use SROs must have an MOU, and as of July 2020, they must also: 1) post the most recent MOU on their website;  2) review the MOU at least once every two years (and at any point if either schools or police request it); and 3) provide opportunity for public input during its review. (See SRO Advocacy Checklist by the Legal Aid Justice Center)

FUEGO is a strong advocate for the abolition of mass incarceration, and we regard youth arrest and criminalization as a racist and classist practice that feeds mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. The data released by the police in 2020 did not include demographics of the children arrested in Harrisonburg, but this is certainly another area where we will direct our attention as part our programming and community organizing efforts.

We reiterate our intent to collaborate with community based organizations and with public schools to end youth incarceration, but also demand more consistency and clarity by school officials in the public discussions about this matter. We believe public schools should be an environment where children are free to experiment, make mistakes, grow, without fear or risk of being subject to intimidation, criminalization, or arrest at the hands of law enforcement.

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