Fairfax County Juvenile Courts statistics show that between August 28, 2018 and June 13, 2019, School Resource Officers in Fairfax County Public Schools charged 278 youth with a variety of offenses. These charges were all made relative to a school-based event. Some students were charged multiple times by SRO’s, resulting in 321 intakes. The most common charges made against students by SRO’s were possession of marijuana (116), assault (36), tobacco use, purchase or possession (20), disorderly conduct (13), other drug-related offenses (13), larceny (10), and weapon on school grounds (10). 35 percent of complaints filed were for White Youth, 34 percent were for Hispanic Youth, and 22 percent for Black Youth. 61 percent of intakes filed were for youth of color. 55 percent of the student intakes were eligible for diversion.of the 321 intakes filed by SRO’s, 35 percent were diverted and 48 percent were petitioned to court. This means that in 2015 more than 160 Fairfax Public School students were faced with the threat of several serious legal consequences, the two most serious are being adjudicated as a juvenile delinquent or transferred to criminal court. Without law enforcement presence in our schools, some — perhaps many — of these charges and consequences would never have happened.
These statistics are the reason that the federal Office for Civil Rights pronounced in 2015 Virginia as #1 in the nation for student referrals to law enforcement. We should be ashamed of this desgnation. We should be working furiously to change this dangerous school-to-prison pipeline operating in Fairfax County and the rest of the Commonwealth. This is not a #1 ranking to boast about.
On July 7th, Sean Perryman, President of the Fairfax NAACP and I signed an open letter to Governor Northam requesting that he approve the repurposing of the $4.7 million annually allocated to support SRO’s across our state. We asked that these funds be moved to the Department of Education and mandated to be spent on new Mental Health Counselor postions. Given that the average salary of a school Mental Health Counselor in Virginia is $50,000, and adding in the required local match based upon the local composite index, quite a few mental health counselors could be funded. Our reopening schools need to be able to offer strong support to our children who have been subjected to extreme stress as we have battled the Covid-19 health and economic crisis. The current social unrest has only added to that stress. Our children must not be emotionally undermined even more by armed police presence in school hallways.
In accordance with my firm belief that SRO’s should never be involved in student discipline, I have sponsored a bill prohibiting them from doing so. While the 2018 FCPS/FCPD Memorandum of Understanding speaks of FCPS handling discipline without involving SRO’s and that law enforcement explicitly is not to be involved in disciplinary action, the school system website reminds us that SROs are ‘sworn law enforcement officers’ and they may act to enforce state and county laws. There is an inherent conflict here: many student behaviors that warrant disciplinary action according to the Student Code of Conduct can be seen as breaking a state and/or county law, (underage possession of tobacco, for example) and therefore subject a student to arrest by an SRO.
I also filed a budget amendent requesting the reallottment of SRO funds to a fund for school mental health counselors.
Unfortunately the budget amendment was not included in our final budget, but will be re-submitted for the 2021 session.
We have a unique and timely opportunity to step back from the SRO program as it is constituted, and to evaluate, reform or even eliminate it. We should look at the program through a results oriented lens and ask ourselves if the outcomes of this program are the consequences we intend? Do we really want to continue as is, knowing the outcomes I have outlined above? We declare as a society that we want to build a postive and safe school environment. I challenge us all to take this time of virtual schooling to pause and develop thoughtful and evidence-based programs that will acheieve just that. We can start with repurposing state SRO funds to be spent for school counselors — a increasingly pressing need as this Covid crisis continues.