In the wake of local and national anti-racist protests and calls to “Defund the Police,” Albemarle county school officials have focused with increased intensity on whether or not School Resource Officers (SROs) will be allowed a continued presence in schools when they reopen this fall. School Board members are concerned that some students may feel uncomfortable with, or fearful of, police officers in their schools, and want to either redefine the role of SROs or eliminate them altogether.
“Moving here from Alaska, I’ve always been sort of puzzled as to why we have [SROs] … and I was pretty skeptical as to why [parents] would want them and why it was necessary,” said David Oberg, White Hall District School Board representative, during a June 11 virtual meeting. “Given what’s taken place nationally, I think it would be nonsensical not to be afraid if I was a person of color.”
A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreement between the school division and the Albemarle County Police Department allows uniformed officers to serve as SROs, where their job is to patrol school hallways and interact with students, respond to and prevent criminal activity to ensure a safe school environment, and serve as mentors and community liaisons for students. A joint statement from the School Board Chair and Superintendent in June stated:
“Currently, five SROs are assigned to our schools [three in the three largest high schools and two who float among schools in the northern and eastern feeder patterns]. They are vital contributors to our ability to keep students and staff safe. Officers are available to support public safety needs at any of our 25 schools upon our request. In the annual survey of high school students conducted for the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, most students said the presence of an SRO made them feel safer in school. … It is worth noting that no complaint about SROs has been filed with the school division in more than a decade.”
Officer Ronald Vanderveer has served as the SRO assigned to WAHS for the last three years, and he also visits and responds to calls from the other five western district schools each week. “My number one reason for being there is to enhance the safety of school grounds,” said Vanderveer, “but my biggest opportunity is to take on a mentor role, to encourage students and help them be focused on making the most of their education.”
While 10 to 20 percent of his job involves responding to disruptions such as fights, vandalism, or illegal drugs on grounds, he spends the majority of his time simply interacting with students—from chatting at tables in the high school cafeteria during study hall to reading books to first graders at one of the elementary schools. A 17-year member of the Virginia National Guard, Vanderveer fields questions of law from faculty and staff and tries to help students not to repeat past mistakes.
“My door is always open,” said Vanderveer, “and I’ve gotten to know many students by name. I want them to talk with me about problems or issues with friends or their home life before it rises to the level of something serious or even a criminal violation.” He attends school sporting events and speaks in government and driver’s ed classes, and he monitors the local police dispatch so he can alert school administrators about nearby threats. “My biggest job as a police officer is communication,” he said, “and my goal is never to have a negative interaction with a student.”
At the School Board’s June 11 meeting, member Judy Le made the initial case for removing police from schools. “I believe the studies upon studies that show that [SROs] don’t in fact increase safety,” said Le. Referring to “our black brothers and sisters who have been protesting generations of trauma from over-policing and brutality,” Le posed a question to the board. “How can being faced with the embodiment of that trauma every day make for a safe and positive learning environment? I don’t believe it does.” Noting that infrequent arrests are made in schools, she wondered “why the division is spending $265,000 on SROs each year? Why do we have them at all?”
As other board members agreed with Le’s statement and momentum gathered to eliminate SROs from schools entirely, Superintendent Matt Haas recommended that the board finish the ongoing review of the current MOU and then decide if the agreement articulates “all the goals we have for such a program.” Haas suggested that an independent auditor could evaluate the program and provide data for the board to use in making a decision about whether to continue. “We have time to take a look at this since there’s no school in session and the SROs are out doing other jobs and won’t be reassigned to schools until August,” he said.
Haas pointed out that the current lack of articulated goals for the SRO program means that the division lacks a way of measuring the program’s effectiveness. “We don’t know how many times someone hasn’t gone in and assaulted someone in a school because they saw the police car parked out there,” said Haas, “and we also don’t know how many students have had a chilling effect on their learning if an officer frightens them. It at least deserves a little bit of study.”
Haas also requested that the board consider how schools would deal with certain critical situations in the absence of an MOU with police. “If, for example, we have a social media threat at 10:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, then typically the police are actively involved with helping us track down the threat and bring it to a resolution,” he said, “and oftentimes it doesn’t result in an arrest but in getting the student the help they need. So if we’re not going to have SROs, then we need to re-articulate another MOU with the county police department on how to resolve those kinds of threats.”
At their June 19 meeting, board members said they had received a deluge of input from their constituents on the SRO issue over the prior week. “We’ve received a whole lot of emails saying [the SROs] have to go, and a whole lot saying they have to stay,” said member Graham Paige.
Several members suggested that an SRO’s mission could be accomplished without being physically on school grounds. “We call the paramedics if a child breaks his arm, but the paramedics don’t have to be at school,” said Oberg, “and it’s the same with police. We don’t need them there. There’s no evidence that SROs eliminate school shootings, but if children are suffering anxiety or are upset because police officers are there, that’s our responsibility.”
The board agreed to send out a survey to students asking about the quality and quantity of their interactions with SROs to gauge student sentiment. The student survey was open from June 18 through 25, and county staff presented the results at the board’s June 26 retreat. More than 2000 students from county middle and high schools responded, with 40% saying they rarely or never see an SRO at their school and 35% reporting they see the SRO daily, which likely reflects the fact that an SRO is only present full-time at the three largest high schools.
Students agreed or disagreed with (or had no opinion on) statements about SROs such as, “Having an SRO in my school makes me feel safe” (53% yes, 18% no), and “I have been distracted from my schoolwork because of the presence an SRO” (7% yes, 72% no). Overall, of the students that reported that they or a friend had had an interaction with an SRO, 83% described the interaction as positive and 17% said it was negative.
The principals of division high schools and middle schools were also asked to give their opinions on SROs, and those anecdotal statements were characterized as “generally positive [and] supportive of SROs in schools in some fashion” by school division officials. While principals noted that SROs do build relationships with students and provide a positive first experience with an officer, turnover among SROs reduces those benefits and there are families and students who are anxious when an SRO is around.
School Board Chair Jonno Alcaro related a concern shared with him by a senior police department official who said that if SROs are no longer in schools, then a 911 call made by a school will draw the first available officer in the rotation. “That officer may have never worked in a school environment and may not have a prior relationship with students or principals,” said Alcaro, “and [my contact] said that those interactions go much better if the responding officer is a known entity.”
The full survey results plus other materials reviewed by the board can be found on the Albemarle County Public Schools website—navigate to the June 26 meeting agenda and click on item 2.3.
At the end of the June 19 retreat, the board unanimously passed a motion to direct the school division to provide the board with a revised MOU that eliminates the daily presence of police officers in school buildings. Board member Oberg reiterated that the revised MOU would be a jumping-off point for further discussion, not the final decision.
At its June 26 meeting, the board requested that a survey be sent out to parents asking for their perspective on SRO. They plan to reach a decision before school restarts.