Virginia Schools Need Investment in Support Staff—Not More School Resource Officers
Yesterday, Governor Northam announced over $3.47 million in School Resource Officer (SRO) incentive grants to 53 localities across the Commonwealth. The funding will allow school divisions to add more SROs to Virginia’s K-12 public schools, increasing the number of SROs in Virginia by 10 percent, according to the press release. To create safer schools where all children can learn and thrive, Virginia must divest from placing law enforcement inside schools and make bold new investments in school support staff and trauma-informed and restorative practices.
School Policing Is A Racial Justice Issue
African-American students are disproportionately swept into the criminal justice system for incidents that take place at school. A 2017 Virginia Tech study uncovered significant racial disparities in referrals to law enforcement for school-based offenses: African-American students accounted for roughly 23 percent of the student population in Virginia but nearly 50 percent of referrals to the juvenile justice system. Those disparities are heightened inside school buildings and persist throughout Virginia’s law enforcement and juvenile court process. A single report of a student to law enforcement, even if it does not lead to a juvenile court intake, can have devastating and ongoing consequences for a student: stigmatization by school staff and peers, erosion of trust in school staff, susceptibility to more police encounters, and loss of interest in school.
As outlined in an extensive report from The Advancement Project, school policing has roots in efforts to quash youth support for the Civil Rights movement, and African-American students report feeling less safe with police in schools.
Our Schools Don’t Need More SROs
According to Virginia’s 2017 Statewide School Safety Audit Survey, 87 percent of high schools and 85 percent of middle schools have either a full-time or part-time SRO. In recent years, in headline after headline, we have heard about school police officers responding with force against students with disabilities, using chemical restraints like pepper spray against middle school students, threatening or intimidating students, and harboring ties to white supremacist groups. Through data collection, we see vague, subjective behavioral “offenses” like disorderly conduct charges decrease in the community, yet substantially increase in our schools. Only this past General Assembly session did lawmakers mandate that all SROs receive training specific to their duties—a law that will not even go into effect in full until July 2020.
Both the data and historically overpoliced communities themselves tell us clearly: rather than providing for the safety of students, a school law enforcement presence merely shuttles more students—and disproportionately more African-American students—into court for school discipline matters that should be handled by school personnel.
Meanwhile, Virginia understaffs positions critical to student support—positions that should be the first line of support for students who instead are garnering charges—and student caseloads are staggering. School counselors had an average caseload of 385 students in 2016, well above the recommended standard of 250 students. In 2015, school social workers had an average caseload of 1,600 students; the national recommendation was 1,000.
Virginia Must Fix Its School Funding Crisis
SROs are law enforcement officers, not student support personnel. Rather than prioritizing SROs, the Commonwealth must first fulfill its state constitutional duty to invest in high-quality, twenty-first century schools with adequate student support staff. But given the opportunity, the administration has neglected to propose, and the General Assembly has declined, over and over, to fully fund the required staffing positions to achieve high-quality schools for all students. Despite broad support for a new law, effective July 1, to require school divisions to lower counselor-to-student ratios, the state’s FY20 budget doesn’t fully fund the new caseload requirements—leaving local school divisions with an unfunded mandate. This shortfall also exists despite recommendations from the Virginia Board of Education to lift the state budget’s arbitrary “support position cap”—which limits funding for school support positions, including central office positions, attendance officers, school social workers, and maintenance personnel.
To truly create supportive learning enforcements for our students—Virginia must fully fund our schools.