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How do local law enforcement agencies interact with schools?

City of North Charleston, via Flickr

Some local school districts have removed school resource officers in recent years; others have chosen to keep theirs. WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi investigated the role of police in public schools in our area. Here’s the first of her two-part report.

School resource officers, or SROs – the police officers and sheriff's deputies that are stationed in K-12 school buildings – have been a hot topic in recent years. The school districts in both Charlottesville and Albemarle County decided to remove their SROs in 2020.

Other localities in the commonwealth are grappling with the SRO issue, too – most contentiously, Alexandria, which began the 2021-22 school year without SROs. But several incidents prompted the city council to abruptly return the officers in October, as The Washington Post reported. But after a complaint of misconduct surfaced in December, the two high school SROs were removed again.

Harrisonburg City Public Schools also conducted a fractious review of their SRO program last year …

[Audio clips from September 2021 meeting]

AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: You're here to dismantle the criminal legal justice system. There's a very large part of this community that does not agree with that.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: There is a fear with melanated people of color of the officers because of what they have witnessed.

That review concluded with task force members delivering multiple, contradicting recommendations as to whether officers should be in the schools at all, and if so, what their roles should be. As The Harrisonburg Citizen reported in December, the school board then voted unanimously to keep SROs in school buildings.

I started researching and talking to people for this story towards the beginning of this year. As you can imagine, the tone my interviews took concerning law enforcement and school safety shifted after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. I spoke with Officer Doug Britt about his work before that tragedy. He's been stationed at Staunton High School for about 10 years.

Randi B. Hagi
School Resource Officer Doug Britt has worked at Staunton High School for the past decade.

DOUG BRITT: Typical day? There's really no typical day.

He usually helps direct bus loop traffic in the morning, then spends part of his day monitoring the halls, making sure external doors are locked.

BRITT: Obviously any high school is going to have a fight. I've been involved over the years in separating those individuals from those fights. Most of the time it's, you're verbally and just kind of your presence standing there to move them in a different direction, to separate them from the other individuals that they may be fighting with.

But he said explicitly that he wasn't responsible for enforcing school discipline. Sometimes Britt said he'll encounter an angry or upset student in the halls, or an administrator will ask him to speak to one, especially if he has a rapport with that student.

BRITT: It takes a long time for that to build up, but once you get it, even if they're upset, they'll most of the time want to talk to you or start to talk to you. And you just have to learn that you have to give them their time.

And then there are drug-related incidents. Most of them involving marijuana are handled through a diversion program housed in the juvenile courts. But occasionally Britt says he deals with students with hard drugs.

BRITT: I mean it's any high school in America that you're going to run into those things.

But SROs aren't the only law enforcement officers who interact with public school properties and students. Police get called to schools to respond to violent altercations, drug situations, and traffic crashes, and they get sent there on patrols as part of their regular workday.

My research found that those proactive patrols consume the vast majority of police activity at local school buildings. I reviewed the records of all the calls police responded to over the past five years in seven districts in our area – at the city schools of Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro, and the county schools in Albemarle, Augusta and Rockingham.

I sorted each call type into one of nine categories, including violent or threatening situations, and less serious situations such as property crimes or traffic incidents, plus a miscellaneous category. I was not able to get a complete picture from Augusta County, because many of their records were redacted for what they said were security reasons. And Rockingham County was only able to provide me with data from 2020 and 2021.

So, what did I take away from all this number-crunching? The jurisdictions varied slightly in the reasons that law enforcement tended to visit school properties, but for all of them, the vast majority of activity involved routine patrols.

In Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, and Staunton, the second most common call type had to do with traffic incidents.

Out of all the agencies I analyzed, Charlottesville officers responded to the most violent or threatening incidents when compared to the size of the student population – 101 incidents total in the past five years, which breaks down to 24 incidents per 1,000 students.

So, whether or not SROs are stationed at a school, officers will sometimes be summoned. Some of those calls, when they're coming from school administrators, are discretionary, but some are legally mandated. Virginia state law requires school principals to immediately report incidents such as an assault that results in an injury, or conduct involving controlled substances, if a felony might have taken place.

As we’ll see in tomorrow’s follow-up report, these districts, particularly Harrisonburg and Albemarle, have made different decisions on the question of whether SROs are necessary.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.