By sifting through surveys and looking for common ground, school board prepares to make its decision about SROs

School Resource Officer Ronnie Bowers’ shift starts before students arrive and doesn’t always end when they leave the classroom as SROs are also present during sporting events held at the schools. SROs are mobile and spend the day patroling the school hallways and lunch periods getting to know students and faculty at the school they are assigned. (File photo from 2019)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

After the School Resource Officer Task Force returned from 10 months of work with essentially a hung jury on the issue of keeping police officers in schools, Harrisonburg’s school board members are now parsing the various recommendations to find a path forward.

There has been some movement since the Nov. 4 meeting when the 17-member task force of community members, educators and police representatives presented their report about the future of the School Resource Officer program. One of the three task force members who initially abstained has since joined the seven task force members who recommended keeping officers in schools —  albeit with changes to the program, said school board member Deb Fitzgerald. The other seven members want to scrap the program. (The remaining two who abstained from making a recommendation still have not provided a written position.) 

Fitzgerald said she’s not surprised with the mixed outcome because it reflects what society at large is feeling about this issue. Following the murder of George Floyd last summer, she said a “racial reckoning” started to move its way through Harrisonburg and the country, and school divisions began to take the issue of whether to have police presence in schools and, if so, how best to define the program. 

“And we saw the reactions being quite different,” Fitzgerald said. “Some people pretty quickly got rid of SROs, some people slowed down and talked about it, like we’re doing.”

Fitzgerald and the other school board members made it clear at their Nov. 4 meeting that while other school divisions’ decisions are important, the Harrisonburg School Board must do what’s right for this community. And they’re spending this month trying to figure that out in preparation for revisiting the future of the program during the board’s Dec. 7 meeting. 

Some common ground

While the task force couldn’t reach a consensus recommendation, the members did agree that the city’s School Resource Officer program failed to collect data and lacked accountability during its almost three decade arrangement between the school district and police departments to place officers in schools. 

The Citizen reported earlier this year on some of the duties officers assigned to the schools have taken on, as well as some district-wide disciplinary data. 

But Fitzgerald also said it came as a surprise to many task force members and community members during the information gathering process that school resource officers aren’t responsible for enforcing discipline — school personnel still handle punishments for student infractions. 

“That’s the principals, that’s the teachers, that’s the administration in each school,” Fitzgerald said. “A whole bunch of people noted that they didn’t know that. So what I’m very curious about in the data that they’re collecting [is] whether when people find that out, do they have a different opinion about whether SROs should be there or not?”

In an effort to assess the community’s attitude surrounding SROs, the task force conducted online surveys, parent focus groups, student focus groups, and individual interviews with stakeholders, including some from the Harrisonburg Police Department. 

However, instead of those survey results and input being presented in the report “in a coherent way” as Fitzgerald said, “you can find bits and pieces of it in sentences, in various members’ recommendations, used in both directions.”

The task force and some school staff are trying to crunch the collected data on Harrisonburg while keeping responses anonymous, so board members can examine the unfiltered responses.

School board member Andy Kohen said while he was disappointed the task force couldn’t come to a clear consensus, he understands that might never have been a possibility. 

And with few metrics and data to show how the School Resource Officer program has operated and how officers have interacted with students, making a judgment-based decision is “very, very difficult,” Kohen said. 

School Board Chair Kristen Loflin responded to The Citizen’s inquiry with a statement saying even though task force members split, “what was consistent in the report is that there are challenges with the current program” that include the lack of data, lack of training for school personnel and the officers — as well as nebulous or nonexistent expectations for the roles the officers should fill in schools. 

The school district and police are working on an extended memorandum of understanding to maintain the program — with some limits — until the school board decides its future. 

A useful item in the appendix? 

But Kohen said the task force provided a template for a stronger agreement between the school district and police, but that suggested a new memorandum of understanding was attached to the report in its appendix — without directions or context from the task force. 

“It sort of leaves us in a limbo state,” Kohen said.

Kohen said, if adopted, it would be an improvement over the current agreement because it generates the basis for hard data collection in the future. 

“I do think that understanding the precise role of an SRO within a school building is important, and I think what that modified MOU does is move in that direction — to specify what is the appropriate role, and likewise the boundaries on what is expected in the behavior of an SRO,” Kohen said.

Fitzgerald was the city’s school board chair in February 2018 when a gunman in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people at the high school. She said the conversation about how to protect children in schools was extremely different than now and heard from people who wondered if Harrisonburg’s schools needed metal detectors or even more SRO involvement.

“There was this real fear about how vulnerable kids were in the schools,” Fitzgerald said. “I remember then that the idea of getting rid of SROs there would have been laughed at.”

She also said without school resource officers, the “last line of defense” in schools in a violent situation falls to teachers and counselors. 

“We’re asking a lot of teachers, and we’re asking a lot of counselors, and I don’t know that I’m ready to ask that of them, too,” Fitzgerald said.

Looking through the input

In the Virginia School Climate Survey administered in 2020, 1,101 students from Harrisonburg High School responded to the statement, “The SRO makes me feel safer in school.” About 72% of respondents answered that they either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, while 25% said they either disagreed or strongly disagreed. Another 151 high school staff and teachers responded to the same question, with 86% agreeing and 13% disagreeing.

The task force’s online survey included a statement that read: “I feel police officers belong in our school,” to which 248 students responded. Of those, 84.7% said they agreed, while 15.3% responded that they disagreed. However, when presented with the statement, “I interact with the police officer at my school,” only 35.6% agreed with the statement, while 64.4% said they didn’t.

Of the 89 students that responded that they interact with the SRO at their school, more than 95% responded that they agreed that police officers belong in the schools.

In the task force’s in-person student focus groups, which they say were selected to ensure diverse student voices were represented, they confidentially asked: “Should armed police officers be removed from the schools?” 

Of the 71 students who responded, 60 of them — which is 85% — said “no,” while 11 (15%) said “yes.”

As an economist by profession, Kohen said while he prefers to deal in data to the extent it’s available, the anecdotal data collected by the task force is significant as well. But even survey data is not as clear as one might hope, he said. 

“It depends on who was surveyed. It depends on how willing the people surveyed are to provide candid answers,” Kohen said. “Hard data is not necessarily generated by simply collecting lots of opinions and positions. Opinions can be quite frankly guided by the way one asks questions, and so one has to be careful, even in assessing what is presented as hard data, about the accuracy of it.”

The task of rendering ‘our own judgment’ 

Kohen also said that going forward, he doesn’t see any merit in prolonging this decision any further because it’s already taken longer than “any of us thought was going to be necessary from the inception of the task force.”

The board initially began discussing the issue in summer 2020 and in February said they hoped to make a decision about the program’s future by May. 

“But we are where we are. We need to take what the task force has given us, and render our own judgment,” Kohen said.

The Citizen also reached out to board members Nick Swayne, Obie Hill and Kaylene Seigle. Swayne referred questions to Loflin, the board’s chair and Loflin said in her statement she would have further comment after the board makes a decision. 

Hill and Seigle didn’t respond to requests for comment. Both served on the task force. Hill was among those who didn’t initially take a position. And Seigle recommended keeping some version of the SRO program. 

“My recommendation is for the program to remain, but it can be reimagined,” she wrote in the report

Kohen said during his time on the school board, it has never been a rubber stamp and board members only make decisions after thoughtful deliberation. 

“The fact that we’re building a second high school was not pre-ordained at the time that the issue first arose, and where it would be located and how it would be designed and so forth,” Kohen said. “It was all open for careful debate and discussion when the facts were presented. I would guess that we would use the same approach to assessing this situation.”

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