Task force hears options for ‘reimagining’ school resource officer program

Harrisonburg police officers Ronnie Bowers, Tony Hermes and Chris Ray serve as school resource officers. A task force is working on crafting a recommendation to the Harrisonburg City School Board regarding the continuation of the school resource officer program. (File photo by Randi B. Hagi)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

As the group considering the future of the city’s School Resource Officers program explores nuanced approaches to the police’s role, regional experts on Thursday outlined different ways other communities call upon officers. 

Four experts on restorative justice outlined such alternatives to school policing at Thursday’s public meeting at Skyline Middle School. Katherine Evans, one of the panelists and a professor teaching restorative justice in education at Eastern Mennonite University, told the audience that “the conversation here is not, ‘let’s get rid of SROs so we can have restorative justice.’”

“Currently, both SROs and restorative justice are existing in our schools,” Evans said. “So it’s not an either-or.”

After some members of the audience said they’d like to hear from some members of the police department and school resources officers themselves, task force facilitator Zerell Johnson-Welch reminded the audience that had been the purpose of June’s meeting.

“This was dedicated toward giving the opposite, compelling argument on how to either terminate, reduce or reenvision what the SRO can look like,” Johnson-Welch said. Task force members have “all been told that it shouldn’t just be a one-all.”

“We’re going to spend some time together with all the information that we’ve collected qualitatively and quantitatively and come up with recommendations,” Johnson-Welch said. “Now these recommendations potentially could show a reenvisioning or reimagining, but then there’s some people on the task force that may not agree, so we’ve decided to give them that voice too so the report will provide the pros and the people who disagree with what they’ve recommended.”

The panelists mentioned how other communities are reshaping school resource officer programs in different ways instead of scrapping them altogether. 

For instance, Charlottesville recently removed SROs from school grounds and have a safety plan that states in the event police are needed, officers have very strict requirements regarding what they can do. Albemarle County instituted school safety coaches that act as hall monitors, which keep tabs on the culture and climate to make sure students are feeling happy and valued. Los Angeles schools replaced resource officers with school climate coaches who act as mentors and mitigators who deescalate rising conflicts.

Teresa Hepler and Frank Valdez, who presented from Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center, said schools having resource officers can make it easier for school officials to refer students to law enforcement for minor conduct, sometimes leading to tougher punishments for students, including arrests. This also disproportionately affects students of color and students with disabilities, they said.

Of 276 incidents reported to law enforcement involving students on school grounds over the last 10 years, 76 resulted in a student’s arrest, as The Citizen reported in May.

While Black students make up 9.7 percent of the Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ population, they make up 14.5 percent of the referrals to law enforcement and almost 20 percent of both in- and out-of-school suspensions, Hepler said. Those decisions are made by school officials. And while students with disabilities make up about 10 percent of the enrolled population, they represent a quarter of students referred to law enforcement and given in-school suspension, and 20 percent of out-of-school suspensions, she said.

Johnson-Welch also said it’s important to understand the history of how certain communities have been treated by police and how members of certain groups are disproportionately disciplined.

“A lot of this is based on our experiences,” Johnson-Welch said. “You can’t talk about community policing without understanding the origin of where this fear comes from in certain communities. If you don’t do your research and understand historically what policing meant and how it actually came about, then you have no real intention of understanding how we define fear in certain communities. And some people think they know but they really should want to take the opportunity to learn and expand what they know.”

Hepler said sometimes childhood behavior taken out of context could lead to in-school discipline or even escalate to land a child in legal trouble, such as being charged with disorderly conduct. But the law has changed: school officials now can choose not to refer minor crimes — such as an assault that doesn’t result in injury—  to law enforcement, instead of giving the police the discretion of whether to charge. And children can no longer be charged with disorderly conduct if it’s engaged in on school property, buses, or at school-sponsored events.

“Disorderly conduct, what does that mean?” Hepler said. “I struggle to come up with what exactly that looks like, especially for a child, who might just be engaging in normal childhood behavior, what people might see as acting out or yelling — things that they do at home that they’re doing in a school, and now they’re being charged with disorderly conduct.”

She compared it to a giant umbrella that could cover a lot of early childhood behavior, as opposed to more specific crimes, such as assault or theft, that are more easily defined.

Part of this overlaps with what Evans points to as a shift from punitive measures to restorative measures. Instead of disciplining a child for behavior that seems inappropriate, restorative justice education aims at addressing whatever unmet need usually causes a child to lash out through the help of social workers, counselors, or mentors.

“We are using a blunt object for something that requires a fine scalpel,” Evans said. “And if the only thing that we have is punitive measures, then we will overuse that one tool for all manner of things when a fine-tuned smaller thing would actually work better.”

The next step in the task force’s process will be conducting student and parent focus groups on school resource officers’ role. Johnson-Welch said it’s important that the ultimate recommendation is a community-based decision.

After the focus groups are conducted, the task force will reconvene to make a recommendation to the school board, potentially by the end of 2021.  

“The biggest takeaways for me are: don’t assume what the public wants,” Johnson-Welch said. “And that is why the task force right now is doing such a comprehensive review and investigation of whether or not the SROs do bring value into the education system. I think they have different definitions of what SROs are, and as one of the presenters indicated we all can agree that we’re here to determine what the well-being is and what the safety is for our students.”

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