School resource officers are under scrutiny. Here’s how Harrisonburg’s program works.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Tony Hermes, a Harrisonburg police officer stationed at Skyline Middle School, said much of his job consists of greeting kids in the morning, speaking to classes and answering questions from counselors and parents about issues like cyberbullying.

For the city’s three school resource officers, called SROs for short, having the opportunity to work with students was what drew them to the assignment. 

“We all want to be there,” said Hermes, who served as an SRO at Harrisonburg High School before switching to Skyline. “We all had to apply for the spot, and we interact with the kids a lot and we enjoy going to work. And there’s a lot of positive interactions with the kids.”

The SROs also are available to school administrators to help respond to student drug use, major physical altercations, and other criminal offenses. For instance, an administrator who finds a vape pen on a student will give it to Hermes to be tested for marijuana. 

Numbers from the community’s law enforcement tracking system and Harrisonburg police data show that anywhere from a quarter to a third of incidents have led to arrests since 2012. And the school district’s disciplinary data revealed Harrisonburg school administrators are more likely to suspend Black students or refer them to law enforcement than white or Hispanic students. 

As communities across the nation began more closely scrutinizing their police departments last year, so too is the city school district reevaluating Harrisonburg’s SROs – whether they should stay in the schools and, if so, what their roles and responsibilities should be.

In January, the division created a task force to research how other communities have worked with – or jettisoned – their SROs, as well as to collect feedback from Harrisonburg residents, and ultimately deliver a recommendation to the superintendent and Harrisonburg School Board. The task force includes educators, school counselors, parents, students and representatives from community organizations. 

“They’ve been going over some of the research behind [SROs], some of the different things other … school districts have done, so they’re in sort of an information gathering phase at this point,” Superintendent Michael Richards told The Citizen.

The Citizen also reached out to three school employees and two parents serving on the task force — all of whom either did not respond or declined an interview. The task force’s next meeting is on May 19.

School districts across the country have opted to keep school resource officers and others have severed agreements with police, including the Alexandria City Council’s decision last week to remove officers from schools.  But the programs and the objectives of the officers themselves are as varied as the communities.

While the police department and the community’s criminal justice database track the numbers of incidents SROs respond to, Hermes said “there’s a ton of stories that don’t get documented,” such as “when the kid comes to you Monday morning, and she says ‘Well, I didn’t run away this weekend,’ and you have that rapport.”

Harrisonburg police officers Ronnie Bowers, Tony Hermes and Chris Ray serve as school resource officers. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

‘Guests in the school’s house’

As it has for many people over the last year, the nature of the job for Hermes and the other school resource officers has changed. 

With most students learning from home between August and April, Hermes spent a lot of time accompanying school counselors on welfare checks when students were absent from learning activities for a number of days.

One misconception Hermes has encountered is the idea that SROs enforce school policy, or walk around looking for students to arrest. Rather, he said, SROs are on hand to be called in by a teacher or administrator.

“We are guests in the school’s house, and so we don’t do anything in the guest’s house on our own,” he said.

Ronnie Bowers, the current SRO at the high school, said if they see a “direct threat” occur they will intervene but that’s very rare. 

“Administrators, they’re in charge of what goes on in there,” Bowers said. They will reach out to us if they want us to be involved. So unless it’s something that they just can’t handle at their level, and it reaches the level of a criminal offense of some kind, sometimes they will reach out to us … a lot of times it’s more us just having kind of a teaching moment with a student.”

Bowers said he’s arrested one student in his three years in the position. 

“He was just being violent, throwing things, wouldn’t listen to anyone … slamming a door against a wall,” he said. “He was given a lot of opportunities [to de-escalate]. Again, I let the staff and the admin do the best they could to control it before I had to step in. It had to reach a pretty high level before I stepped in.” 

Bowers said he then released the student to his parent’s custody. 

The SROs recently completed their second restorative justice training with Wonshé, the police department’s resident restorative justice practitioner. Wonshé, who goes by that single name,  also is a member of the police auxiliary unit. 

Restorative justice, as the Harrisonburg Police Department has been implementing it since 2015, is a process by which the offender, the victim, a police officer and others in the community come together to delve into the harm caused by a crime, the underlying reasons for it and its effects. 

Chris Ray, the SRO at Thomas Harrison Middle School, is currently participating in his first restorative justice process with students and their families after he responded to a physical altercation at the school. 

Should they be armed? 

The three SROs wear the same uniform as a patrol officer, including a standard issue firearm. 

“While the greatest and best part of our job is the interaction with students, we are still police officers, and are expected to respond immediately in the event of an extreme emergency,” Hermes wrote in a follow-up email to The Citizen. “Having all needed equipment immediately available is critical to a swift and professional response.”

He said wearing the full uniform in schools while interacting with students can also help the students get comfortable with talking to police officers outside of school.  

But Superintendent Michael Richards is not convinced that having the SROs armed is a benefit to the students.

“My idea was that we could have the protection of the police from outside intruders, and not have the problems that a lot of school divisions have across the country, where marginalized students feel and are threatened in some cases,” he said. 

He said he doesn’t believe that Harrisonburg officers do that, at least not intentionally. 

“They care about the kids,” Richards said. “They’re good people. The problem is that you want to create in a school a climate of positive expectations, and armed police in schools creates, immediately, an environment of negative expectations.” 

What the numbers show

Harrisonburg police officers, including but not limited to the SROs, have responded to 276 incidents involving students on school grounds since 2012, according to data provided by Criminal Justice Planner Frank Sottaceti. That span of time covers more than 1,700 instructional days. 

Of the 276 incidents during those 10 years, 76 – just over a quarter – ended in a student being arrested.

Drugs and physical altercations were the most common reasons for a student arrest. According to the Harrisonburg Police Department’s data, about 32% of the students arrested were charged with a drug violation; 21% were charged with assault and battery, and 9% were charged with disorderly conduct. The remaining offenses include aggravated assault, theft, burglary, intimidation, destruction of property, violation of liquor laws, trespassing, and violation of weapons laws.

Richards, responding to The Citizen in an email, said Virginia law requires school officials to report the numbers of offenses that occur on school property, school buses or at school-sponsored events. Those offenses include assault, and sexual assault, as well as conduct involving alcohol, marijuana and other controlled substances.

Sottaceti also provided the racial demographics of the students who police responded to in Harrisonburg schools.

Those statistics were collected by a new database – NIBRS, which law enforcement agencies across the country implemented on Jan. 1. NIBRS defines incidents and juvenile arrests slightly differently than the previous system, resulting in a tally of 234 total incidents, 88 of which ended in arrest. One major limitation to this newer data is that it’s not specific on some race and ethnicity breakdowns, as Hispanic and white students are grouped together in the same category.

Of those 234 incidents, 76% involved white or Hispanic students and 23.5% involved Black students. The school division’s enrollment records show 83% of students are white or Hispanic, and just under 10% of the division’s students are Black.

Once officers responded to a situation, they were slightly less likely to arrest a Black student than a white or Hispanic student. In incidents involving a white or Hispanic student, 38.8% ended in arrest. In incidents involving a Black student, 34.5% ended in arrest.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights collects data from school districts on the racial demographics of students receiving disciplinary action in surveys they conduct every other year, such as suspensions and referrals to law enforcement. The most recent data available on its website is from the 2017-18 school year, but does break out Hispanic and white students separately.

According to the department’s data collection on the Harrisonburg City Public Schools, in the 2017-18 school year: 

  • 52.6% of students who were “referred to law enforcement” were Hispanic (Hispanic students made up 46.7% of the school population that year);
  • 23.7% were White (White students made up 36.7% of the school population);
  • 14.5% were Black (Black students made up 9.7% of the school population);
  • and 7.9% were multiracial (Multiracial students made up 4% of the school population).

The demographics of students who were given in-school and out-of-school suspensions were similar, with Hispanic students appearing to get in trouble at rates slightly disproportionate to their numbers, Black students getting in trouble disproportionately, and white students not getting in trouble disproportionately.

This is a trend for Black students across the state, which the Virginia Board of Education is trying to rectify by implementing a new data collection system that “measure[s] how schools respond to student behavior, not just the behavior itself,” as WVTF reported in April

“Discipline disproportionality for students of color has persisted for decades in America’s schools,” Richards wrote. “The problem contributes to achievement gaps including higher dropout rates and lower rates of participation in advanced and gifted academic programs.”

Richards said solutions require a “broad and persistent approach” and that the school district’s efforts include “the SRO redesign initiative, diversity hiring and retention, an equity focus in our strategic planning, professional learning, and redesigning the African American history curriculum. Our educators are passionate about this work.” 

Paths for students who get in trouble

When someone under the age of 18 is arrested in Virginia, they go through a different process than adults

First, not all young people who are arrested are put in handcuffs, Wonshé said.

“An arrest simply means that the person is not free to leave. And the word arrest doesn’t even have to be used,” she said. “A reasonable person would understand that they are under arrest, which means that they cannot leave … so for a juvenile, they could be told to sit on the curb.”

When the arrest is in response to an alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, traffic, or fish and game offense, the officer issues a court summons to the youth and their parent or guardian. For all other offenses, as long as they don’t involve a violent felony, the juvenile is kept in the principal’s office or the police department for up to six hours until a parent or guardian comes to pick them up.

For violent felonies, such as aggravated assault, the juvenile must attend a detention hearing to decide whether the student should be released to a parent or guardian or kept in a juvenile detention facility.

All charges except for violent felonies are eligible for what’s called diversion. Wonshé said diversion plans can include paying restitution to a victim or attending counseling services. Juveniles who go through the diversion process don’t go through juvenile court. 

From her perspective, this diversion process does not contribute to a “school-to-prison pipeline,” a concept which civil rights advocates describe as the funneling of marginalized students from public schools into juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Wonshé said the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice is like “a road filled with multiple checkpoints” that “while still giving the juveniles the opportunity to submit themselves to accountability, and to be responsible for their decision-making and their choices, does everything possible to keep incarceration from being their destination.” 

Editor’s note, 8:45 a.m.: a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the officers had not yet been invited to share at any task force meeting.

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