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Different school districts; different takes on SROs

Google Maps
Harrisonburg High School, at top, still has school resource officers -- Albemarle County High School, at bottom, does not.

In the second of a two-part report on school resource officers and public schools, WMRA's Randi B. Hagi takes a closer look at Harrisonburg, which kept their SRO program; and Albemarle County, which ended theirs.

Opponents of Harrisonburg's SRO program have argued that having officers in schools makes some students feel less safe, and can lead to the escalation of incidents that would otherwise just be handled by school administrators.

In October, two SROs tried to apprehend a student running away from an administrator at Harrisonburg High, and according to Harrisonburg Police Chief Kelley Warner, they all fell on a freshly-mopped floor. Then, on January 31st, an SRO got involved in a fight happening between two students. One of them, Jayden, told me it started with him grabbing the other student's phone, and that boy pushing him.

Randi B. Hagi
Monica Robinson with her grandson Jayden, a student at Harrisonburg High School.

JAYDEN: After that happened, he said something about my mother. And then that just caused me to get even more upset and then to rush at him … I guess that day I just wasn't in the best mood.

In a video that Jayden's grandmother, Monica Robinson, sent me on February 1st, you can see Jayden pushing a teacher to try and continue fighting with the other student. An SRO is standing behind the teacher. When Jayden gets past the teacher, the SRO throws his arms around Jayden and they go to the ground, with the SRO landing on top of Jayden.

JAYDEN: I thought he was just going to put me in a restraint, but it turned out to me getting slammed.

MONICA ROBINSON: I'm not saying that he doesn't hold any accountability for some of this that happened in the video. But what he doesn't hold accountability for is using that level of force. It doesn't match the incident … Jayden had quite a bit of issues with his neck, and suffered headaches for about a week there, so I'm really concerned that there was a concussion or that he's going to have some residual effects from being body slammed by a grown man.

Chief Warner reviewed this incident through the normal use-of-force review process, and she said the officer responded appropriately.

City of Harrisonburg
Chief Kelley Warner of the Harrisonburg Police Department.

KELLEY WARNER: He put his arms around him and they fell to the ground. And unfortunately, falling to the ground, the officer couldn't determine which way he was going to fall, and unfortunately they fell together, the officer landing on top of the student.

My analysis of records from law enforcement agencies in seven local jurisdictions in the last five years indicates that the vast majority of an SRO's activities, such as directing school traffic or walking the grounds, doesn't make it into their call log. The incident with Jayden at Harrisonburg High appears to be one of the times when it did – there's one entry for the Harrisonburg High School address on January 31st, listed as a case of disorderly conduct.

I also went through these logs to see if the numbers changed significantly for school districts that jettisoned their SROs. The Albemarle County School Board voted to remove theirs in 2020, and this past academic year marked the first without them. So far, that decision does not seem to have adversely affected school safety.

JESSE TURNER: From my conversations with principals, children, my safety coaches, there has not been more of a feeling of being unsafe because the police are not there.

Albemarle County Public Schools
Jesse Turner is the director of student services for Albemarle County Public Schools. He supervises the district's student safety coaches, and he's the point person for contact with the police.

Jesse Turner is the director of student services.

TURNER: Because remaining safe in a school is something that everyone who's there on a daily basis has to engage in.

At public school buildings, in the last five years, Albemarle County Police responded to 13 violent or threatening incidents per 1,000 students – one of the lowest overall rates of the districts I analyzed.

This school year, the police department recorded interacting with public school properties with basically the same frequency they did in the three pre-pandemic years in my dataset, when they still had SROs. Police did respond to 32 violent or threatening incidents this year – which is a bit fewer than they did each of the three years prior to the pandemic. That at least indicates that what played out in Alexandria last fall, where SROs were also removed, has not happened in Albemarle County.

While they don't have the police stationed in school buildings, the county did create new positions called "student safety coaches," although Turner specifically said they are not meant to be replacements for the SROs. The safety coaches may usher a distressed student to a school counselor or psychologist, or help talk through a problem themselves.

TURNER: We feel like it has made a huge difference, and we're kind of moving in the right direction.

I spoke with both Turner and Warner after the school shooting happened in Uvalde, and in light of that tragedy, both of them stressed the adage, "if you see something, say something" to keep our schools and communities safe.

TURNER: Our children and parents, by and large, have really bought into connecting with someone at the school … We've had social media threats, right? And actually, before the threat may have come out, a student has reported to the office to tell one of the administrators.

I asked Officer Doug Britt, who's stationed at Staunton High School, what he saw as the biggest loss for school districts that have removed their SROs.

BRITT: Having a school resource officer in any school building is the best community policing that any department can do – as long as it is the right school resource officer. It can't be just any officer off the street. It has to be someone that wants to do the job, and understands the difference of what you do on patrol versus what you do in the schools.

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.
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