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Republicans look to increase police presence in Virginia’s schools

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Crixell Matthews
A police officer outside of Providence Middle School in Chesterfield County. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Editor's note;: This article was updated Jan. 19 at 6:46 PM with comments from Sen. Jennifer McClellan.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin and some Virginia lawmakers want to require police in every public school across the state: at the elementary, middle and high school level. That’s despite Virginia referring more youth to law enforcement than any other state in recent years, often for low-level offenses that disproportionately affect students of color.

During his first address to lawmakers on Monday, Youngkin said, “I’m asking members of this general assembly to prioritize school safety – by putting a school resource officer on every campus.”

According to data provided by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, the majority of middle and high schools in Virginia already have a full-time SRO. There are only 30 middle schools and 26 high schools without any police presence. 596 of Virginia’s elementary schools don’t have police presence at all, and 405 elementary schools have only part-time police presence.

The department said they can’t release the names of the school districts with and without SROs because it’s considered “information concerning security plans and specific assessment components of school safety audits,” per state code.

Two Virginia Beach Republicans have introduced legislation to increase police presence in schools. Del. Karen Greenhalgh wants to require school districts to employ one police officer for every school — at the elementary, middle and high school level — while Del. Tim Anderson is sponsoring legislation that would require a police officer in every Virginia middle and high school but only one police officer for every five elementary schools. Anderson says the officer could rotate between the schools, spending one day per week at each.

“I don't know necessarily that it's the best use for the police department to have one police officer sitting in an elementary school full-time, eight hours a day, five days a week, when there's unlikely going to be something bad that's going to happen,” Anderson said.

Anderson says his package of school-safety-related legislation, including another bill that would require the use of metal detector wands in all schools, among others, was inspired by school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida in 2018. He also cited a recent school shooting in Newport News as well as a suicide in a Virginia Beach high school last year.

“My heart is to make sure guns aren’t coming into schools, and I really just want to have this conversation with my colleagues,” Anderson said. “People that have lost their children are the activists now and say, look, these are things you can do that would have avoided Parkland,” Anderson told VPM News.

According to reporting from the New York Times, the sheriff’s deputy assigned to Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida didn’t enter the building during the shooting and seven other deputies remained outside as gunshots rang out.

There were a little over 1,000 incidents involving weapons, mostly knives and “other weapons,” in K-12 Virginia schools or at a school event during the 2019-2020 school year, according to VDOE data, though the data doesn’t specify whether or not the weapon was brought by a student or adult. It’s also possible for multiple offense categories to result from one incident involving a weapon, so this figure does not represent the number of unique weapons brought onto school grounds.

Research on the effects of police on student and school outcomes is limited, and the evidence that does exist is mixed, according to the Urban Institute. Some studies show a rise in arrests over low-level offenses when more police are placed in schools.

Hayley Cleary, professor of criminal justice and public policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, studies the impacts of police interrogations on youth.

“Researchers are beginning to ask really important questions about how youth get referred to law enforcement or get charges filed against them for interactions that occurred - or statements that were made - while they were in school,” Cleary said. “Students are required to be at school. But the lines are really blurred when you have people who are not only sworn to uphold the law but trained to identify illegal behavior and report it… in a school setting, which is meant to be a safe and supportive educational environment for kids.”

Cleary adds that police officers in schools sometimes take on additional roles like counseling and teaching – which the National Association of School Resource Officers promotes – that are often in direct conflict with their role as a law enforcement officer.

“Counseling a youth through a mistake that they may have made might be directly in conflict with filing charges against that youth,” Cleary said. “The problem is baked into the structure of the whole idea of police in schools. So, if we're trying to keep kids safe and we're trying to support their development, then bringing people with powers of arrest into their compulsory place of learning is not the best way to go about it.”

Amy Woolard, policy director with the Legal Aid Justice Center, thinks decisions about whether or not to employ police should be left up to each local school district.

“Communities are actively discussing, what does school safety mean? What does it mean to feel safe in a school and for whom? And I think so long as those conversations are going on, we need to preserve the local discretion in those matters,” Woolard said.

For example, Arlington County Public Schools voted last year to remove police from its schools in favor of investing in more mental health resources for students. Charlottesville City Public Schools voted in 2020 to remove police from its schools.

Tom Kapsidelis, author of the 2019 book “After Virginia Tech: Guns, Safety and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings,” says that if lawmakers are concerned about school safety and youth gun violence, they need to also focus on gun safety measures outside of schools.

He’s concerned about efforts this year to repeal gun-control measures passed by Democratic lawmakers in 2020, including a one handgun per month limit as well as an extreme risk protection law. And he wants to see support for laws like one introduced by Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) that would require families to lock up firearms around youth.

“You have to take a step back and look at the safety of our communities and see how young people in many cases have too easy access to weapons, and how young people in too many instances are in environments where guns are on display,” Kapsidelis said. “And I think that in order to create safer schools, we have to look at making our communities safer. And I think this is more than a law enforcement issue. It really gets at what we can do to interrupt violence in our communities, what we can do to keep weapons out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.”

Efforts to repeal a 2020 law that garnered bipartisan support

In 2020, multiple Republican lawmakers – including Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin) - joined Democrats in supporting legislation sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and Del. Michael Mullin (D-Newport News) to give principals more discretion when determining which low-level school-based offenses should be reported to law enforcement.

But this year, Stanley is carrying legislation to repeal that measure and again require principals to report every incident that could be considered a misdemeanor to law enforcement. Stanley’s office did not respond to an inquiry about why he’s changed his position before deadline.

This issue is still not fully partisan; Anderson thinks that principals should have some discretion when determining whether or not certain school incidents should be reported to law enforcement. He’s carrying a different piece of legislation that would maintain a principal’s discretion for reporting certain non-violent crimes.

“Fights without injury I think are one thing. Fights with injury are another,” Anderson told VPM News in an interview. “Boys are going to be boys, and there's always going to be a pretty girl, someone's going to get pushy and shove-y about. It's just human nature. Two boys are pushing each other around over a girl. One of them has to have a criminal record as a result of that? These are things we really have to look at and balance.

“I'm not a fan of the police being involved in any kind of criminal investigation unless there's actual injury,” Anderson said. “If it’s something more minor, or if it's a property violation, or an alcohol violation or something like that, I think that the schools are probably best able to deal with them.”

Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond) says overturning the 2020 legislation is counterproductive.

“We are talking about in some instances, very, very minor infractions,” Bourne said. “The fact that we would affirmatively require principals who are charged with the care and education of young people to do something that severely and substantially impacts their education and their life by introducing them to the school-to-prison pipeline and the criminal justice system is beyond my ability to comprehend.”

Woolard advocated for the 2020 legislation after a 2015 report from the Center for Public Integrity found Virginia schools referred more students to law enforcement than any other state in the 2011-2012 school year.

“It was happening for very low-level offenses, it was happening for so-called disorderly conduct, and it was happening to students of color. And it was happening to students with disabilities at alarming levels,” Woolard says. “[State code] doesn't take into account how certain student behaviors could be a clear manifestation of a disability. So, we were trying to bring discretion into the equation. Some of that discretion is around age and disability.”

Another Center for Public Integrity report published just last fall found that Virginia referred more Black students and students with disabilities to law enforcement than any other state in the 2017-2018 school year.

Recent arrest records from Richmond Public Schools show students were often arrested for fights as well as possession of marijuana. One student was arrested for possession of a lighter a few years ago.

Legislation has also been filed to overturn another 2020 bill that removed disorderly conduct from the list of allowable criminal charges for elementary and secondary students while in school. The legislation was supported by Richmond Public Schools, including the district’s school safety team.

McClellan said the disorderly charge “was literally used to charge a Black child in Henrico County with a misdemeanor for singing a rap song on a bus, or a Black child with autism in Lynchburg who was sent to the principal's office, kicked a trash can."

She said she plans to fight legislative efforts to reinstate the disorderly conduct charge for youth, as well as efforts to repeal her 2020 bill granting principals more discretion when reporting low-level offenses. McClellan notes that bill didn’t eliminate the requirement that all offenses be reported to parents, and she thinks efforts to repeal it are connected to a widely-reported incident of sexual assault in a Loudoun County bathroom.

"That bill had absolutely nothing to do with that incident,” McClellan said. “I think they [Republicans] made it into a campaign issue to scare people into voting a certain way."

Valerie Slater, executive director for Rise for Youth, is troubled by efforts to overturn legislation aimed at reducing the school-to-prison pipeline.

“There is no benefit to engaging youth in the justice system younger and younger and more readily. What we ought to be doing is recognizing and being alerted when a child is struggling, and then adding the needed supports,” Slater said. “Are there therapies, are there other supports that need to be put in place for a child or for that family? The court isn't the best place. We shouldn't send them to court first. We just shouldn't be reporting them to law enforcement. Why are we putting a target on a child's back with law enforcement over misdemeanors?”

Correction: In a prior version of this article, a graphic title said only 1% of school-weapons offenses were for firearms. The correct figure is 4%. We have updated the article and apologize for the error.

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