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Harrisonburg Debates Removing Police From Public Schools

Randi B. Hagi

Presenters at a public meeting Thursday night [Sept. 9] in Harrisonburg expressed opposition to keeping police officers in the city’s public schools. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

About forty people sat scattered across the auditorium at Skyline Middle School in Harrisonburg, where the SRO - or school resource officer - task force hosted a town hall on potential alternatives to the SRO program.

The task force, which includes school staff, parents, students, and community members, was created in January to evaluate whether or not the division should keep police officers in the schools, and if so, what their roles should be. In June, they hosted a town hall with a presentation from the Harrisonburg Police Department about the SRO's jobs and how the department has begun to implement restorative justice into their work.

Thursday's presenters argued against the necessity or efficacy of police in schools.

THERESA HEPLER: I understand that SROs, specific SROs can be beloved of the school, and for good reason. So we understand that there might be an emotional response. What we are here to talk about today are facts and data about the systemic problems with SROs being in schools.

Teresa Hepler is an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, where she's a part of the Civil Rights & Racial Justice Program. Hepler argued that schools with SROs disciplined their students more often and more severely, which included referring students to law enforcement. She also presented data from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which showed that within Harrisonburg City Public Schools, Black students only make up 9.7% of the school population, but 14.5% of students referred to law enforcement.

HEPLER: This is very much a holistic issue … it's not just about SROs, it's about the entire disciplinary culture of a school. SROs have a good, decent sized impact on that, but they're not the whole picture.

The final half hour or so of the event was reserved for questions from the audience. A few in attendance took issue with the format of the event, which they had expected to be more discussion-based than presentation-based. Others disagreed with the entire premise that law enforcement was not a benefit to the schools.

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.

There also appeared to be some confusion over what presenters and the police were referring to when they talked about 'school discipline.'

JASON KIDD: My name's Jason Kidd. I'm a captain with the Harrisonburg Police Department. I appreciate everybody being here. I appreciate the panel - made some good points, and I genuinely appreciate your time. Just wanted to address the question regarding discipline … and the answer to that question is no. School resource officers are not involved in school discipline.

To be clear, school resource officers in Harrisonburg are not involved in enforcing any school rules or policy. Where their jobs intersect with school discipline, though, is when school administrators refer students to law enforcement to deal with. In some instances, such as with drug offenses or assaults that result in an injury, administrators are required under Virginia law to report to law enforcement.

Some parents in the audience expressed fears over who would protect their children from drugs or violence if the SROs were removed. Others, like Raquel Williams, are more concerned with the officers' behavior.

RAQUEL WILLIAMS: There is a fear with melanated people of color, of the officers, because of what they have witnessed. What I have personally witnessed myself, as well as witnessed from afar, having four children in front of my house [where] they sat every evening … talking about what they were going to do when they got to college together, and having officers jump out, pull guns on them, and pull them out of the car. Thankfully, Officer Kidd, you did show up, and you apologized for the incident. But my daughter, who is 23 now, is forever traumatized.

The next step for the task force is to organize parent and student focus groups to gather their input.

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.