By Matthew Dunne:
The policy governing roles and responsibilities of armed police officers who patrol the hallways of every public middle and high school in Fairfax County is about to be improved, after a community panel submitted more than 50 pages of comments in a wide-ranging review.
Although universal agreement was not reached, the policy review, the first in several years, led to significant improvements, including establishing a bright line between school discipline and law enforcement.
[Editor’s note: Some panel members believe the policy should strengthen protection for immigrant students – read story here]
The revised policy is set to be voted on by the Fairfax County School Board this coming Thursday, and will take effect with the start of the school year on Aug. 28.
The policy review grew out of concern that the existing agreement between the Fairfax Police Department and the school board had led to disparate treatment of minority children. In response, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova appointed an ad hoc committee of community representatives to provide input on the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the school system and the police.
Some parents and community members view armed police in schools, known as school resource officers (SROs), as a necessary safeguard against the many dangers in our world. While violent crime remains at historic lows, gun violence, sex trafficking and gang activity continue to threaten the safety and security of our children in school. From this perspective, SROs serve as the first line of defense.
Other parents and community members view SROs as the problem, not the solution. Dash cam, body cam, and cell phone videos have revealed a disturbing pattern of discrimination and violence against minority children across the country.
In Fairfax County, there are conflicting reports on SRO interactions with students. However, data compiled by ACLU People Power show that approximately two-thirds of those arrested by SROs are African-American or Hispanic, even though these groups together constitute only one-quarter of the county population.
Similarly, two-thirds of students receiving suspensions are African-American or Hispanic, even though these groups together constitute only one-third of the student population.
Led by Communities of Trust Committee Chair Shirley Ginwright, the SRO review committee engaged in a thorough review of the MOU, starting with its first meeting on July 2. The process was at times contentious because the stakes were high and the time was limited. The parties had to bridge serious differences of opinion and understanding on SRO activities within three weeks. The committee members submitted dozens of comments, which were compiled into a matrix exceeding 50 pages in length.
The draft reviewed at the final meeting on July 19 committed Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) to “handle discipline within the school disciplinary process without involving SROs” and affirmed “that school administrators and teachers are responsible for school discipline and that law enforcement is not to be involved with disciplinary action.”
In addition, Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) reaffirmed its commitment to resolve student offenses through the school disciplinary process or restorative justice programs. These measures will help to deconstruct the so-called “school to prison pipeline.”
FCPD also committed to a significant expansion in the training provided to SROs, to include mental health training, crisis intervention training , disability awareness training, implicit bias/racial bias training, restorative justice techniques, and cultural competency training. With this training, SROs will have the knowledge and understanding to interact with an increasingly diverse student population.
Committee members proposed a continuation of the review process in the coming months. In addition, committee members advocated for certain improvements to further strengthen the MOU, to include increased protections for immigrant students.
Among the organizations represented on the committee were the Fairfax County NAACP, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, the ADAMS Center, the Fairfax County Police Civilian Review Panel, the Fairfax Education Association, the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, ACLU People Power, the Fairfax County Council PTA, the Special Education PTA, and the Fairfax Federation of Citizens Associations.
Both FCPS Superintendent Dr. Scott Braband and FCPD Chief Edwin Roessler attended each of the three meetings held on July 2, July 9, and July 19, demonstrating their strong commitment to soliciting community input on SRO activities.
Matthew Dunne is Vice President of Advocacy, Fairfax County Council PTA, and parent of three children in Fairfax County Public Schools. He is a member of the Mt. Vernon District Democratic Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org