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Henrico to Increase School Police Virtual Roles

School
Glen Allen High School, in Henrico. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

As Henrico schools take their classes online due to the coronavirus pandemic, the district’s school resource officers will take on a number of increased virtual roles.

These “increased engagement opportunities” will include co-teaching classes, such as driver’s education and some civics courses. SROs will also hold virtual office hours for student consultation, and sponsor online clubs and extracurricular activities, according to the district’s safety and emergency manager, Cortney Berry.

Officers will also continue work they usually do in person, such as providing safety training for staff, and assessing threats -- though this time with an increased emphasis on cyberbullying, according to a presentation Berry gave to the Henrico school board last month.

In an interview, Berry said the SROs’ virtual responsibilities will serve as “more opportunities for students to build positive relationships with police officers.” HCPS sees increased interaction between students and police as the appropriate response to a growing distrust of law enforcement.

“There's a lot of conversations that need to be had nationwide, but when we look specifically at Henrico, how it affects us as a community and what we need to do to enhance the relationship here in Henrico, I think that's why we've taken the stance we have,” Berry said.

SROs have come under the microscope as anti-racism protests question the role of police. In Richmond, the school board is considering removing SROs from its buildings. Charlottesville schools have already done so.

Henrico has taken an opposite approach. School Board member Alicia Atkins supports the district’s actions. She says officers “have to become more involved” in the daily lives of Henrico students in order to dispel negative perceptions of police in the future.

“If our students only identify our school resource officers with locking someone up or pepper spraying them or tasing them, then it’s not incredibly hard to believe that when they come out of a public school system, that there’s already distrust as an adult,” Atkins said.

She says the district’s decision to increase student-police interactions is based on a number of studies, one of which claims SROs minimize damage to school property and prevent student injuries due to violence and drug overdoses.

The district’s research, however, also found the presence of SROs in schools brings about risks of racial discrimination, disciplinary issues becoming criminalized unnecessarily and “negative effects on students’ academic success.”

The Henrico School Board hopes increased cultural sensitivity training and non-violent de-escalation methods will go far enough to address community concerns. This will include minimum training standards for SROs mandated by a new Virginia law that went into effect in July.

“I'm hopeful some of the things in training will talk about de-escalation for special needs, students with disabilities, particularly Black students as well,” Atkins said.

Berry said HCPS had previously allocated additional mental health resources in its budget, but much of those resources, “if not all,” were cut due to financial restraints from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the school resource officers, they are trained with crisis intervention techniques through their police department,” she added.

Currently, there are 35 SROs in Henrico schools. The school district’s Memorandum of Understanding agreement with the Henrico Police Department is reviewed yearly. According to the district’s Chief Financial Officer, Henrico Schools paid $1.5 million dollars for its SROs for the 2021 fiscal year. 

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