SRO task force meeting gets a little testy

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Representatives from the Harrisonburg Police Department provided their perspective Wednesday night to the Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ task force that’s evaluating the role of school resource officers and were met with a mixture of appreciation, skepticism, support — and some pushback.

Wednesday’s meeting, held at Skyline Middle School, began with a presentation from Wonshé, the police department’s resident restorative justice practitioner and a member of the task force. 

The task force is in the middle of debating the future of the school resource officers program, where four officers are stationed at schools across the city’s district. The task force is planning a town hall to gather further public input later this year and expects to make a recommendation to the Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ board in late September about how the program should look moving forward or even if it should be discontinued. 

Wonshé, who goes by that single name, is also a member of the police auxiliary unit. She told the task force about the department’s restorative justice program, its intersection with the work of SROs and the various potential outcomes for a student under the age of 18 who is arrested.

She said a school resource officer initiated a current restorative justice process after a 14-year-old student committed a “violent felony” on school grounds, and that process is “going amazingly well.”

Tony Hermes, who spoke with The Citizen previously about his work as an SRO at Skyline Middle School, also presented about his experiences during the meeting, and made his case for why the SRO program should continue. 

Besides detering some crime, such as fights, from occurring on school grounds, he said they provide an opportunity for students to build positive relationships with uniformed officers.

“The consistent presence of an SRO that constantly engages the kids — when they want to be — allows these kids to be more comfortable. And they will come and talk to us about any number of things,” Hermes said. 

After the presentations, task force members and those attending the meeting participated in a question-and-answer session facilitated by attorney Zerell Johnson-Welch, who’s been hired as a consultant to the task force. Even though only about 35 people attended, so many of them were eager to speak that Johnson-Welch had to cut off the discussion when it ran well past its scheduled end time of 8 p.m.

Some expressed support for the officers.

“Have those in opposition to SROs in our schools seen the day-to-day experiences they have here in Harrisonburg?” asked teacher Megan Austin.

She challenged task force members who don’t have personal experience with SROs to “shadow those officers, to see the impact they have not just on students but on our school and city communities as a whole.”

Anthony Hill, dean of students at Skyline Middle School, stood and explained that his career has taken him to cities such as Tulsa, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and included both educator roles and being a police chaplain.

“I have been throughout all these cities working with schools, working with police officers, so I’ve seen the worst of the worst,” Hill said. “Instead of taking on the model of the nation, I want to tell you I believe that Harrisonburg can be a model to the nation, if we look at this task force and we handle it right.”

However, other attendees pushed back against the need for or role of the officers. 

During her presentation, Wonshé outlined different offenses students could commit and how law enforcement might handle them. Often those offenses don’t land a student in a juvenile detention center. 

But she sought to make the point that sometimes even young people can act violently. 

“The impact of harm is not lessened by the age of the offender,” she said.  

She mentioned a specific crime from 2012 — one of just three years in recent history when minors committed violent felonies for which they were later convicted. 

That example, though, didn’t seem to go over well with some of the attendees, who expressed consternation that Wonshé used that example involving students of color who committed a crime away from school grounds. Wonshé had told the Daily News-Record in a story published Friday that she planned to mention that example in her presentation. 

Kathy Evans, who teaches restorative justice in education at Eastern Mennonite University, was concerned with what she saw as the article’s “conflation” of the SRO program with the restorative justice program.

“RJ isn’t just a responsive thing when harm happens,” Evans said. “The article that came out seemed to suggest that restorative justice is only what happens in that responsive role. What Harrisonburg City Schools are doing so beautifully is building a restorative justice in education program that’s incredibly proactive.”

Her comments were met with applause.

Wonshé responded, saying that there was an “intersection” between the two programs, not a conflation. 

Paloma Saucedo, chairwoman of the organization FUEGO, said Wonshé’s language “criminalized brown children in our community … [in reference to] a crime that was not committed on school grounds.” 

Laura Feichtinger-McGrath, who is the director of English learner services and also serves on the task force, said the article had become a distraction from their work of examining SROs. And with more public meetings and an ultimate recommendation the task force must make about whether to continue the program and, if so, what it would look like, she urged the task force to refocus. 

“We want to do right by our children and our teenagers and our adults who actually still attend school,” Feichtinger-McGrath said. “So that’s the important thing here.”

Editor’s note, 4:36 p.m.: a previous version of the article incorrectly identified Paloma Saucedo as a member of the task force.

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