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Richmond School Security Officer: ‘Disorderly Conduct Has To Go’

Man stands in front of school hallway
Andre Nious, a school security officer at George Wythe High School, says student behavior shouldn't be criminalized. (Photo by Megan Pauly/VPM)

When students first walk through the doors at Richmond’s Huguenot High School, Ron Walters is one of the first adults they’ll see. He’s one of six school security officers, or SSOs, at the school, and says his job responsibilities vary depending on the day.

“Make sure [students] make it to class, make sure there's few, limited or no fights in the schools…” Walters said. “Just maintaining the overall well-being of the school system here.”

Drugs, property damage, assault and trespassing are among the handful of offenses that SSOs and other school officials are required by Virginia law to notify law enforcement, like school resource officers, about. For everything else, Walters says he tries to de-escalate and talk to students himself, as well as work with other school staff.

But there’s another big grey area called disorderly conduct that has a vague legal definition. Current language in Virginia’s code uses the word “disruption” in the context of students. Under Virginia law, disorderly conduct can result in a criminal misdemeanor for both adults and youth.

“It’s purely discretionary,” said Amy Woolard, attorney and policy coordinator for the Legal Aid Justice Center. “It’s very subjective on the part of school officials and school resource officers what constitutes disorderly conduct.”

VPM hasn’t been able to verify how many students actually end up with a criminal conviction because of a disorderly conduct complaint in school. But we do know how many of these cases are sending students through the court system.

Prince William, Henrico and Chesterfield County reported among the highest number of in-school disorderly conduct complaints over the last few years, according to data from the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice. The numbers for Richmond schools were much lower. Between 2016 and 2018, DJJ says there were an average of six disorderly conduct intake complaints filed per year from school resource officers and none from school officials in the city.

According to data Woolard received from the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, there’ve been 1,740 school-based disorderly conduct complaints filed statewide over the last few years, from 2016 - 2019. About half of these complaints turned into formal charges that go before a judge and a prosecutor and proceed through the court process, Woolard said.

“It's a lot of time that kids have to spend kind of proving themselves to adults over and over again,” Woolard said. “And families get swept up into this as well. There can be fines, there can be problems with transportation to court dates that are pulling parents away from jobs and pulling kids away from school. And it really just becomes this kind of spider web of a process that it's really hard to extricate yourself from.”

Of those cases that do end up before a judge, Woolard says public defenders have shared with her some anecdotes about what type of behavior got them there.

“Underlying incidents included things like singing a rap song on a bus,” Woolard said. “Children who clearly had some sort of disability whether identified or not, and the behavior that was troublesome was a symptom of that disability.”

Additionally, over half of all Virginia students that ended with these complaints were black. The charge also disproportionately affects black female students.

“That label….it has to go away,” said Andre Nious, a school security officer at George Wythe High School in Richmond. He feels strongly that student behavior should not be criminalized. Instead, he wants to see more social, emotional and academic supports in place for students.

“You establish a disorderly charge on them... that’s not empowering,” Nious said. “That's telling them, okay, well, they already told me I’m bad. So that's the way I'm going to act.”

Democratic Delegate Michael Mullin has a bill in the General Assembly to decriminalize disorderly conduct for students ages 20 and under on school property, on the bus or at a school-sponsored event. Richmond Public Schools also supports the legislation.

“You can’t be charged with being loud and black,” Mullin said during a House Courts of Justice committee meeting Monday where the bill advanced to the House floor.

Republican Delegate Rob Bell is concerned about school-sponsored events happening offsite, like prom at a private hotel. He was the sole no-vote on the bill in subcommittee last week and hasn’t supported measures like Mullin’s in the past.

“We’ve all heard about brawls at football games, and I’m concerned that law enforcement have all the tools available to them in settings like that,” Bell said.

Republican Delegate Kirk Cox, a retired teacher, also has reservations.

“One of the things teachers will tell you, and I think why a lot of them leave the profession, is discipline in the classroom,” Cox said. “And I just think we need to be very careful with what we do in that space.”

But others like Democratic Delegate Marcia Price and Jennifer Carroll Foy says it’s an important step in ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

“We need to get kids out of the criminal justice system so we can end the perpetual cycle,” Carroll Foy said.

Democratic Delegate Jeff Bourne sponsored legislation this year that would’ve extended decriminalization of disorderly conduct to adults, not just students. He says that’s an issue he’ll continue pushing in next year’s session but was happy to keep the focus on the kids this year.

Woolard says Virginia’s entire disorderly conduct statute is rooted in vagrancy laws that many southern states relied on to quell civil rights protesters over the years.

“It has been on the books for quite some time and actually has its roots in some of the Jim Crow laws that have been the terrible legacy of our state,” Woolard said. 

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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