School board opts to keep officers in schools — but with new parameters

School Resource Officer Ronnie Bowers has served at Harrisonburg High School for two years. His 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 patrolling the school hallways and lunch periods getting to know students and faculty at the school they are assigned. (File photo)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

The Harrisonburg City School Board on Tuesday unanimously approved keeping the School Resource Officer program — but with a revised memorandum of understanding between the school district and Harrisonburg Police Department. 

The basis for the proposed agreement’s language came from a subgroup of the task force that studied the program since last year. Several board members said that while the proposed new parameters for the program make strides towards setting up data collection — which the task force found lacking — the new document still needs some work.

Board member Deb Fitzgerald said some language is too informal and vague. For instance, Fitzgerald pointed to the section aimed at outlining the officers’ role. 

“The first sentence is, ‘SROs should be considered active members of their assigned school.’ I agree with that,” she said. “I don’t know what it means though in practice. And there’s a bunch of stuff that’s threaded throughout here that I generally agree with the sentiment, but I just don’t know what it would actually mean as practiced.”

Board member Nick Swayne said proposed language doesn’t solve the issue of requiring more data collection because it essentially only specifies demographic data and not performance data.

Superintendent Michael Richards said with the board’s decision, his next step is to take the new MOU to Harrisonburg Police Chief Kelley Warner to get her approval and figure out how performance data can be measured and collected. He also said the program should be reviewed more often than once in three decades and on a regular basis.

“This is a start to be much more transparent and much more reflective on our SRO program,” Richards said.

Swayne also said that even though the task force members were largely split in their ultimate recommendations about whether to continue the program, data collected from the Virginia School Climate Survey favored keeping SROs. Out of 1,101 respondents from Harrisonburg High School, 72% agreed with the statement, “The SRO makes me feel safer in school.”

Board member Obie Hill, who served on the SRO task force, said the conversation isn’t over and that those on the task force who voted against keeping officers in schools should be included in that discussion as well. Fitzgerald also said that the 25% of HHS students that disagreed with the earlier statement should be brought in.

Continuing the shorter school day?

Pat Lintner, assistant superintendent for instruction, recommended the board continue the one hour-shortened school day schedule for the rest of the academic year. A majority of the division’s teachers reported through an administrative survey that the new schedule was working for them after its implementation in early October.

Before the board makes a final decision, though, there will be a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 14, at Skyline Middle School to allow for public comment.

The division also conducted a parent feedback survey, to which they received almost 700 responses over 57 pages of comments. And while many parents felt the change to be much more developmentally appropriate for their children, especially at the elementary level, many others reported having trouble adjusting their work and childcare schedules to match the change.

With many after school programs like Second Home and Boys and Girls Club fully booked, Swayne said that they have caused many parents to pivot to accommodate that change — so the division is responsible for figuring out how to solve that problem.

District staff recommended adding some school-based programming or to explore additional sub-contractor options. 

“It’s important for us to have students in safe places after school,” Lintner said. “And also have students socializing and interacting and playing and doing things that ultimately contribute to academic and life success.”

Richards commended staff and the principals at each of the schools for adjusting their master schedules to retain the instructional time while jettisoning the non-instructional time.

“So for example, when teachers were let’s say minding kids while they were waiting for a bus because of a bus shortage, that’s not instructional time, that’s not valuable time,” Richards said.

New partnership school

JMU’s dean of the College of Education, Mark L’Esperance, outlined a new community partnership school involving JMU, the city schools and Rockingham County Public Schools. The school is meant to give some high school students a glimpse at pre-professional career pathways.

Richards also said he envisions it as an “innovation hub” where they can experiment with research-backed education practices. 

The partnership school will be located in Memorial Hall — the former high school that JMU purchased and now holds many College of Education classes. The school has an expected opening date of Fall 2023, but the board will revisit the program  in a work session at the beginning of 2022. 

In order to ensure the student body is representative of the diversity of both Harrisonburg and Rockingham county, L’Esperance said he’d work with Richards and Superintendent Oskar Scheikl of the county schools to identify diverse groups of students from each division, who will be entered into a lottery system.

Using a shared budget model, it’s expected that the partnership would cost Harrisonburg approximately $1.7 million. However, L’Esperance insisted that this shouldn’t be seen as a cost, but an investment.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric about ‘how do we invest in the lives of children,’ and to me this is reality,” L’Esperance said. “If potentially we move from rhetoric to actually doing this, then this is going to change lives for years to come. Generations, most likely. It’s going to provide access to college to students who most likely wouldn’t be going to college.”

Richards also said that after the start of the new year the board will revert to its old model of a business meeting for the first Tuesday of the month and a work session for the third Tuesday. And Richards said they’ll try to continue to televise those going forward, and the work sessions will be on different campuses each time so each neighborhood will be able to attend.

Clarification: This article was updated to make it clear that Superintendent Michael Richards was the source for information in the final paragraph.

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