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Police Arrest Richmond Students Over Minor Offenses

police car
A photo of police in Richmond in 2012. (Photo: Edward Kimmel/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Richmond’s public school district is reviewing its agreement with the Richmond Police Department, which includes staffing of school resources officers, known as SROs, in multiple middle and high schools.

The district has also released new data on SRO-involved student arrests, which shows that by far the majority of Richmond students arrested  over the last two school years were detained for simple assault. 

Simple assault is considered the least serious form of assault, often involving very minor injuries, and sometimes no injuries at all

“We've had students charged with assault on a teacher with injury when a teacher was scratched or stubbed their toe,” said Amy Woolard, attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center.

After simple assault, a class 1 misdemeanor, marijuana possession is the second most common charge for RPS students, followed by disorderly conduct. VPM has requested copies of recent student arrest records from RPS and RPD through two separate public records requests. 

In the past, school officials have been mandated to report these cases to law enforcement, often the SRO. But a new state law that recently went into effect makes that reporting just an option and not a requirement. 

This year, Virginia lawmakers passed legislation that will remove the disorderly conduct charge for students, which was rooted in vagrancy laws that have historically given police more discretion. The disorderly conduct charge for adults still exists in Virginia; legislation to get rid of it failed this year.

Virginia’s vagrancy laws were the subject of “Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s” by UVA law school dean Risa Goluboff. “Armed with this roving license to arrest, officials employed vagrancy laws for a breath-taking array of purposes: to force the local poor to work or suffer for their support; to keep out poor or suspicious strangers; to suppress differences that might be dangerous; to stop crimes before they were committed; to keep racial minorities, political troublemakers, and nonconforming rebels at bay,” wrote Goluboff in an excerpt that appeared in Time magazine.

Another related law that also passed this year will require the state to collect, report and publish data about interactions between SROs and students. That includes their involvement in use of force, seclusion and restraint, student arrests, detention, other disciplinary actions and more. 

“I think a lot of people may be unaware that school resource officers can use things like tasers and pepper spray on students,” Woolard said. “We've had that happen in Virginia, as young as middle school.” 

Woolard has advocated for these laws for years, and hopes they will prevent kids from ending up with a criminal record for behavior that she thinks should be handled differently. She points to a 2015 investigationthat found Virginia was sending more students to police than any other state. 

“When you hear the statistic that Virginia is number one in the nation and referring kids to law enforcement...a big piece of that was that we have this statute that mandates a lot of those referrals,” Woolard said.  

“Because school resource officers have been in the building so much, that is the referral. If they're involved in a situation, that referral box is ticked, in terms of the reporting.”

RPS is holding two public hearings on Monday July 27, and August 24 for the public to weigh in about police involvement in schools. Details about time and place have not yet been released. The school board was initially planning to discuss its relationship with RPD Thursday night, but is now set to take it up during its next scheduled meeting Tuesday evening.

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