School board seeks to make sense of divided recommendations on school resource officers

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

After the Harrisonburg School Resource Officer Task Force members split over their recommendations regarding police officers assigned to schools, the school board on Thursday decided to extend the current agreement with city police for another month to allow board members more time to decide what’s next.

The task force, which the Harrisonburg City Public Schools tasked with examining the School Resource Officer program, has spent the last 10 months examining and debating the issue. Ultimately, the 17-member group gave competing recommendations. 

Seven members of the task force recommended that SROs be removed from schools, citing national data showing officers’ presence in schools is linked to an increase in arrests for low-level, non-violent childhood behaviors typically handled by administrators and parents. Some data also showed that Black, Brown and disabled students are disproportionately affected by these arrests and citations.

Another seven members recommended that the SRO program should remain in place. Two of those members are police officers, one is a school principal and another is school board member Kaylene Seigle.

Three members abstained from giving a recommendation.

Facilitator of the task force Zerell Johnson-Welch told the board during a nearly four-hour meeting Thursday that one thing all task force members agreed upon was that Harrisonburg’s SRO program was “wholly deficient in all the program activities they need to document and show.”

“There was a lot of room for improvement,” Johnson-Welch said. “And the challenge there is there’s no data or accountability.”

Outside of the memorandum of understanding document between the school district and the Harrisonburg Police, the committee couldn’t find any written evidence of a program description or key information about officers’ oversight  and outcomes. They also said that for a program that is more than 25 years old, the amount of available data on Harrisonburg SROs was alarmingly scarce.

While one task force member who recommended ending the officers’ presence issued that recommendation alone, six task force members submitted a joint recommendation saying SROs should  “not have permanent offices or a daily onsite presence in the schools.” They cited what little data was available, as well as anecdotal findings through interviews with community members and police personnel. Their report shows that from 2010-2020, 23.5% of arrests in schools involved Black students, while less than 10% of the student population was Black. 

In addition, of the 1,101 Harrisonburg High School students who responded to the 2020 Virginia school climate survey, one in four answered that they do not feel safer with SROs in school.

Johnson-Welch also said the task force found a general lack of understanding about the SROs’ roles in Harrisonburg schools.

“Some students’ teachers used them for this, some did not,” Johnson-Welch said. “And that’s really a big problem.”

She said SROs are not involved in the disciplinary action of  a student and that they are only there in the event of a potential crime. The document recommends that if they are to be kept in schools, SROs should receive ongoing training in aspects of adolescent development, implicit bias, anti-racism, and trauma-informed care, among others.

Several board members also asked that all the local data regarding the SRO program obtained throughout the process be made available to them, to better inform their decision making because national data doesn’t necessarily reflect Harrisonburg. 

Richards’ contract extension

Harrisonburg City Schools Superintendent Michael Richards. (file photo)

The board unanimously approved a four-year extension of superintendent Michael Richards contract. But the approval of the contract extension led to some discussion about pandemic-related policies, which school board member Obie Hill said he had concerns about. 

“To sit here and pretend as if things are going well here in HCPS would be false,” Hill said. 

Hill ultimately voted to approve the extension, but not without first criticizing Richards’ suggestion of the approval of the vaccination requirement for faculty and staff.

“When we make decisions, we need to keep in mind that there are other people out there that also need to feed their families,” Hill said.

Richards responded, saying he thought he was making a recommendation that was in the best interest of the school division while the city grappled with the delta variant surge. He said he was operating under the advice of public health officials who were also advising the White House and that there is now a rule that every school division in Virginia should require vaccines for teachers.

“I did not think at that time that there would be a large number of employees who would say, ‘I won’t take a test once a week’ if they’re not vaccinated,” Richards said. “Maybe I am too optimistic about these sorts of things, but I thought that people would say, ‘we’re working with children who can’t be vaccinated, it makes sense.’”

He said it was not a mandate to get vaccinated because there was a choice. He said that the point of the recommendation was to think about everyone and what “will keep people safe.”

Hill said he wasn’t completely blaming Richards for the fallout because the board changed the language from mandate to requirement and ultimately voted on it. He pointed out that other divisions chose to go other routes when it came to the vaccine, and Richards said he stood by his decision.

Literature censorship

Several people spoke out during the public comment period of the meeting on two sides of a censorship issue regarding LGBTQ+ reading materials in schools. 

Some speakers said the books were sexually explicit and pornographic in nature, and providing access to them for minors was against the law. Among those speakers were residents of other localities, such as Broadway and Mount Sidney.

Others championed LGBTQ+ rights and diversity, saying that it’s important that the diverse demographics in Harrisonburg be reflected in available literature. As a group that is prone to higher rates of suicide and suicidal ideation, many said it’s crucial that transgender students see themselves represented in the available media.

Liz Howley, a parent of three children Harrisonburg schools, said diversity is a strength within the schools. She also said that doesn’t just apply to race and ethnicity, but includes religion, socioeconomic status, political ideology, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

“Our HCPS students deserve to see all of their intersectional identities represented in their reading materials,” Howley said. “And I truly hope that with everything going on in the world right now, we stop wasting the school board’s time with discriminatory and bigotry-minded items like this on the agenda.”

Clarification: This post was updated to reflect that while some speakers during the public comment period came from outside Harrisonburg to speak about the book censorship issue, a speaker from Penn Laird discussed a different topic unrelated to that.

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