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Richmond Public Schools Reevaluating Relationship with RPD

School board members seated behind low partition
The RPS board is planning to review the involvement of law enforcement in public schools, although their removal is unlikely. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

School districts across the country have been ending their relationships with local police departments in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota on Memorial Day. A similar action in Richmond is unlikely, with only two board members vocally critical of police involvement in schools, but the Richmond Public School board is planning to review the matter.

RPS school board member Kenya Gibson worries that police officers in Richmond schools are contributing to what’s called the school-to-prison pipeline, in which students of color become categorized as delinquent at a young age -- although she’s stopped short of calling for their immediate removal.

“The problem is that the system is broken,” Gibson told VPM. “We've got a system that begins in a hallway, continues in communities, and it ends in jail. It leaves behind a landscape of broken families and futures in its wake, and it needs to be completely reimagined.”

Gibson added that “I'm not of the mindset that there are easy solutions,” and said, “it's not a matter of just taking someone out of the school, or not taking someone out of the school. We really need to start from the ground up.”

Gibson said she wants to see more support for students with special needs, English language learners, and students impacted by trauma.

“Having sat in disciplinary meetings, the number of special needs students that we are talking about in those disciplinary hearings are... there are far too many of them,” Gibson said. “So, clearly, there are problems that are not about discipline, they go much deeper.”

Both Gibson and board member Scott Barlow want to see more detailed information about incidents involving school resource officers, and their involvement in matters of school discipline. According to RPS, there were 121 arrests last year “primarily for assault, drug possession and weapons possession.” VPM has requested copies of these incident reports from the Richmond Police Department.

“We need to understand whether our students have an opportunity to make mistakes without getting into legal trouble,” Barlow told VPM. “It's very clear to me that our students -- many of our students and their families and friends -- are over-policed in their community. And it has been for years, and I want to ensure that we're not seeing the same effects in our school district.”

Cheryl Burke, vice chair of the school board and a former RPS principal, said she’s seen the positive role school resource officers play in schools. She said she’s heard from principals and students who feel the same way.

“One principal stated that this was the best school year he had two SROs,” Burke said. “One student stated that because of the relationship that he had with the SRO in the school, he felt so much better just moving throughout the school throughout the day, knowing that the SRO was not there to police him, but to protect him and keep him safe.”

Burke added that because of the relationships between students and SROs, students know who to call when something happens in their neighborhood that warrants notification of law enforcement. 

“So because of the relationship piece that is in place, many of those students know how to handle the situations because of the support they have received from their SRO in school,” Burke said.

Richmond Public Schools has proposed a 90-day review of the district’s relationship with the Richmond Police Department. The district wants to gather additional data and engage the public over the next few months before issuing a set of recommendations about how to proceed.

They’re also expected to vote on contract renewal with Camelot Education, which runs programming at the Richmond Alternative School serving kids with disciplinary and attendance issues, and to review proposed changes to disciplinary policies tonight. The district wants to define and clarify consequences for offenses like stalking, harassment, fights without injury, and possession of weapons other than firearms. Of the proposed changes, only stalking and possession of weapons would warrant notification of law enforcement.

Superintendent of Richmond Public Schools Jason Kamras vowed at a recent city press conference to create a task force to review all policies and practices to ensure racial justice in the district, including its memorandum of understanding with the Richmond Police Department and its disciplinary policies.

“Our commitment is to be more than an inclusive system, to be actually an anti-racist system, which means we’re going to have to do more,” Kamras said. 

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