by Alli Holte
tl;dr: Educate yourself about the racist beginnings of modern law enforcement. Support students’ wishes to remove police from their schools by submitting a public comment on the city’s 2022 budget proposal, demanding we remove the school resource officer line item from the police department budget. Learn who on the school board supported police in schools, and get ready to vote them out (or run against them!) in November.
Over the past few weeks, youth leaders supported by Tenants and Workers United have engaged city council members to advocate for removal of school resource officers (SROs) from the city’s public middle and high schools. Last fall, after discussing whether to renew the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) and the police department, the school board voted 6-3 to renew the MOU and keep police in schools. This decision was a blow to student leaders and community advocates that have explained time and time again that, yes, even in Alexandria, systemic racism is inherently baked into police culture. Continuing to allow SROs inside our school buildings causes harm to our Black and Latinx students. Grassroots Alexandria wrote about this issue back in August and we continue to stand with students today.
During the school board’s public discussions of the MOU, we mostly heard anecdotal arguments from board members about how the individual officers assigned to our schools are decent men who care about their community. I listened to each officer’s statement and can agree that they truly seem like nice people, but it’s critical that when we look at issues like this one, we see past individual stories and focus on objective data. As a person with a police officer in my family, I understand how difficult it can be to focus on the systemic problem and not individual heroics.
Even in Alexandria, where the SROs reportedly create afterschool programs and chat with students during their lunch break, data suggest continued disproportionate treatment of Black and Hispanic students. In the 2016-2017 school year in Virginia, Black and Hispanic students made up just over 26% of the total student population but were involved in over 80% of arrests on campus (the vast majority of students arrested were Black). More recent data from ACPS itself are equally troubling: in the 2019-2020 school year, ACPS suspended 409 students, 350 (about 86%) of whom were Black or Hispanic. Of those 409, 57 were referred to law enforcement. Forty-nine (also about 86%) of those 57 students referred to law enforcement were Black or Hispanic. In comparison, just under 40% of ACPS students are Black or Hispanic/Latinx. We thank Legal Aid Justice Center for obtaining an analyzing these data.
This is not any one officer’s fault — the insidious roots of racist police culture run deep and have been thoroughly researched. I encourage you to take the time to learn about this if you are skeptical. You can read more about white supremacist police culture and its local implications on this website, purchase and read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and download Robert Evans’s and Jason Petty’s “Behind the Police” podcast, produced by iHeartRadio.
Over and over again, we see patterns of increased funding and support for law enforcement that disproportionately endanger our Black and Brown neighbors. For example, activists are already raising the alarm to ensure that any counterterrorism action taken in response to the January 6 white supremacist insurrection at the U.S. Capitol does not just end up targeting Black and Muslim communities. We first saw national expansion in police presence in schools in response to the school shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, when two white teenage boys murdered 12 of their classmates and one teacher before killing themselves. In the two decades since, an estimated $1 billion in state and local funding has been allocated to SRO programs, despite the fact that mass shootings remain extremely rare. Research suggests that most in-school mass shootings take place in low-minority suburban schools, but most SROs today are working in schools with predominantly Black and Latinx student populations. This overcorrection for relatively rare school shootings has had the adverse effect of putting Black and Latinx students in regular contact with law enforcement, and putting SROs in a position to more easily interfere with non-violent infractions, like wearing sagging pants or kicking a trash can. Importantly, the data do not seem to suggest that increased SRO presence in schools has made children safer.
Despite all of this information, and heavy input from the community, including students sharing their experiences, the school board voted to keep its MOU with the police department and continue the SRO program. Undeterred, ACPS students have been meeting with city council members over Zoom to try to convince them to remove funding for the SRO program from the 2022 police budget. I participated in a few of the meetings and watched these young leaders stand up for themselves and their friends. They came prepared and spoke clearly about their desire to remove police from their school and reimagine what the city could do instead (more in-school counselors! Healthcare! Better housing support!). I’m honored I had the opportunity to stand in solidarity with them, and hopeful that at least one or two of the council members with whom we spoke were really listening.
Of course, anything that involves money and elected officials is always more complicated than it seems. The school board has already voted to renew the MOU, and the council members, while sympathetic to our cause, are hesitant to set a precedent of overriding the school board’s policy decision through a budgetary action.
Grassroots Alexandria remains hopeful that our allies on city council will think creatively and find a way to pass a city budget that puts students’ priorities first, but the real problem we’ve yet to face is that six ACPS school board members voted to keep SROs in the city’s schools. They listened to students’ stories, they looked at the data, and they voted against the needs of students.
We can’t go back in time to reverse the school board’s decision, but there may still be time to put pressure on city council to defund the SRO program from the police budget and think creatively about how to allocate those funds instead. You can support students by submitting a public comment on the 2022 budget proposal here: https://www.research.net/r/AlexandriaVA-FY2022BudgetInput. The city manager will present the 2022 budget on February 16.
In the slightly longer term, we must make sure the ACPS school board reflects the values and priorities of our students. Right now, the majority of the board’s members have shown the opposite. Whether you have children enrolled in ACPS or not, this issue should matter to you. We all have a vested interest in making sure our schools provide safe and nurturing environments for our youngest neighbors to learn and thrive. Your taxes support the school district, the same way they do the police department, and we have to keep turning up the heat on both entities to push toward a more progressive vision for public safety.