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Incident at Harrisonburg High intensifies debate over resource officers

Harrisonburg Police Department

The Harrisonburg School Board is deliberating the fate of the district's school resource officers.  A recent incident at Harrisonburg High School concerned some parents, but Harrisonburg's Chief of Police says it's been blown out of proportion. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

On October 21st, a student at Harrisonburg High School was handcuffed by school resource officers, or SROs, in the cafeteria. A concerned parent, who asked to remain anonymous, sent WMRA three cell phone videos taken by other students. In the video that shows the most of the incident, the student and officers are far away, but you can see what looks like three people struggling with one another before at least one of them ends up on the ground.

Police Chief Kelley Warner told WMRA that Officer Christine Hostetter was one of the SROs involved.

KELLEY WARNER: She received a radio call from a Harrisonburg High School administrator that said "stop that student, Hos. Officer Hos, stop that student." And she observed the student come running around the corner at a high, raised speed, running. So she made an attempt to get in the way of the student. He got around her, so she gave chase. She slipped and fell. He slipped and fell … another SRO gave aid to help the student up, and he then, as he got up from the ground on his feet, he scurried away from them. The officer, both officers went to grab him. The other officer fell, apparently they, the janitor had just cleaned the floor.

Warner said Hostetter then handcuffed the student because she didn't know why the administrator had wanted to stop him in the first place.

WARNER: And the officer said, if I can quote, "dude, why'd you run?" And he said, "I got caught with a vape." And she said, "really, for a vape?" And the administrators arrived there, and they walked him, with the officers, to the office. Once they got into the office, the officers took the handcuffs off of the student and ensured that he was okay.

No charges were filed, but Warner said the police department plans to have further discussions with the school staff about when and how SROs should be called in to respond to situations.

WARNER: The sergeant in charge of the SROs contacted the principal because there was some concern about the necessity to involve the officers at that point. And so there's been some cooperative discussion about how we can improve our training.

Warner reviewed the officers' body camera footage, and said she was pleased with their performance. However, she said she can't release it to the public.

WARNER: I spoke with the city attorney. I spoke with Mr. Brown, I had him take a look at it, and we just can't dub out enough of the view beyond that, because there are students in the cafeteria, other than, there's the student himself, and then there are the others around it, and I just can't dub it out enough, to prevent other people from being identified. And because they're juveniles, and it's a school, I can't. I wish I could because I think I could put all this talk to end.

WMRA tried to identify and contact the student's family, but an old landline number appears to have been disconnected, and a Facebook message went unanswered. The anonymous parent asked two students who reportedly witnessed the incident if they were willing to do an interview, which they declined. Superintendent Michael Richards discussed the situation over the phone but also declined a recorded interview.

This all happened just as the school district's SRO task force delivered their final recommendations to the superintendent. Drafts of those recommendations were shared with WMRA by another anonymous source. They show no consensus on whether officers should be in the schools at all, and if so, what their roles should be, or what improvements could be made to the program. Members submitted their thoughts either individually or in statements agreed upon by small groups within the task force.

The Harrisonburg School Board will discuss these recommendations in their meeting Thursday at 7 p.m. in the city council chambers. According to the meeting agenda, there will be a time for public comment, and then the board may decide to take action.

After this story aired, the school board said it would push a vote on school resource officers back to December.

WARNER: Listen, we're going to continue to do our job while they're there. We think we've got a great relationship with the teachers and the staff and the students, most importantly … I don't think now's the time for us to be removing police officers from our schools. Now's the time for us to be building up relationships with our community, and that's a good place to be doing it.

The district's current memorandum of understanding with the police department has been extended to the end of November so whatever the board decides can be implemented.

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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