Fairfax County school resource officers will not get involved in student discipline and other administrative issues under a new memorandum of understanding between Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Scott Brabrand and Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler Jr.
After it was approved 10-0 with two abstentions by the Fairfax County School Board on July 26, community members and civil rights advocates expressed tentative optimism over the document, which dictates the roles and responsibilities of both school and police personnel in relation to the SRO program, even as most allowed that room for continued improvement still remains.
Along with dictating that SROs will handle criminal matters only unless a school administrator has a safety concern that cannot be addressed by school security staff, the memo requires officers to take regular trainings on mental health, crisis intervention, disability awareness, racial bias, restorative justice techniques, and cultural competency, some of which will be conducted jointly with school administrators.
In addition, officers must contact a student’s parents or guardian before questioning them about any possible criminal activity and inform both the student and their guardian of their Miranda rights prior to the interview.
The memorandum emphasizes that the arrest of a student should be a last resort and that police policies and training will ensure all reasonable efforts are made to divert students from getting involved in the criminal justice system.
At the same time, it acknowledges that victims of crime have the right to pursue legal action and that restorative justice alternatives would be inappropriate for some crimes, such as assaults resulting in serious bodily injuries.
“I really feel like that set the Fairfax MOU apart from the rest of the MOUs in the state and probably makes it one of the standard bearers,” Fairfax County NAACP President Annan said of the memo’s separation of law enforcement and administrative responsibilities and training requirements. “We’re going to continue to monitor how it’s implemented and make sure that the principals and SROs are working cooperatively to make sure that line is drawn pretty clearly so students don’t get caught up in the criminal justice system unnecessarily.”
FCPS and the Fairfax County Police Department’s school resource officer program started in 1994, and the county now has a full-time officer assigned to every middle and high school.
The document outlining the school system and police department’s partnership had not been updated since 2014 when Brabrand and Roessler met in June 2017 to discuss it. The pair started revising the memorandum earlier this year in an effort to make it clearer and more accessible to the public, though the Fairfax County NAACP also raised concerns about racial profiling and disproportionate arrests of black students.
Annan was one of 17 people appointed to an SRO Community Review Committee assembled by Bulova and Fairfax County Communities of Trust Committee Chair Shirley Ginwright, who preceded Annan as the Fairfax County NAACP president.
The COTC is a citizens’ group established by Fairfax County in December 2014 as part of an effort to build trust and improve relations between the Fairfax County Police Department and the people it serves.
Composed of representatives from civil rights advocacy groups as well as parent and educator organizations, the ad hoc SRO committee met on three Mondays in July to discuss a proposed draft memo put forward by Roessler and Brabrand.
The committee’s conversations and recommendations resulted in the 21-page final draft that was put up for a school board vote on July 26 and a Board of Supervisors vote on Tuesday.
Much of the ad hoc committee’s discussions revolved around the need to strike a balance between school safety and students’ rights, particularly when it comes to black students and students with disabilities, who tend to be disproportionately injected into the judicial system.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black students account for 31 percent of school-related arrests nationally and are suspended or expelled three times more than their white peers.
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health on Nov. 8, 2017 found that people with mental or physical disabilities are 13 percent more likely to be arrested as juveniles or young adults than people without a disability, a likelihood that increases if they are black with more than half of black individuals with disabilities in the U.S. arrested by the time they are in their late 20s, according to Reuters.
However, one of the top concerns that emerged during the citizen participation portion of the Fairfax County School Board’s July 26 meeting was the particular fears faced by immigrant students, especially if they are undocumented.
Though he is now a legal U.S. citizen, Lee District resident Rodrigo Velasquez was undocumented when he attended Robert E. Lee High School. He recalled in front of the school board how his status made him afraid of telling school staff about the domestic, physical abuse he was experiencing at the time.
The new SRO memorandum of understanding says that FCPD officers are not U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and “shall not participate in any requests for assistance that is not of a criminal nature within the FCPS” system.
FCPD general order 601 dictates that officers should not report individuals who have an outstanding administrative warrant for removal to ICE.
Multiple school and police officials said at the July 26 school board meeting that FCPS does not cooperate with ICE on administrative warrants, which are issued for civil violations of immigration law.
Because ICE administrative warrants are signed by the agency’s officers rather than a judge or other neutral party, it does not give immigration enforcement agents the authority to demand entry into a home or other private space, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
ICE also follows a “sensitive locations” policy that makes places like schools, healthcare facilities, places of worship, and public demonstrations off limits for immigration enforcement actions unless there are “exigent circumstances,” other law enforcement actions lead officers to that location, or they receive “prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official,” according to the agency’s website.
“ICE is not welcome on our school property,” School Board Dranesville District representative Jane Strauss said.
In other words, the language related to ICE is a clarification of existing practices, rather than a new policy.
However, some community members did not feel the assurances given in the SRO memo and by the school board were enough to relieve the fears of immigrant students and their families.
According to school board vice chair and member-at-large Ilyrong Moon, FCPS administrators are told to contact the system’s legal counsel if they receive any warrants from federal immigration authorities.
FCPS Division Counsel John Foster said that administrative warrants from ICE are not considered “of a criminal nature,” but the school system must comply with any warrants issued by a court.
Diane Alejandro, an attorney and member of ACLU People Power Fairfax, argues that that should have been explicitly addressed in the SRO memo.
“Just say no to administrative warrants,” Alejandro said. “Lay it out so everyone understands it, especially the students who are so afraid of ICE. How much this would mean to them to have the school board come out and say that, it would be huge, so they missed the boat on that.”
Foster noted that the SRO memorandum language could “certainly be amended in the future.”
Velasquez says he was heartened by the board’s approval of the new SRO memorandum and its discussion regarding immigration and undocumented students, a conversation that he remembers as virtually nonexistent when he graduated from high school in 2012.
“I actually am really looking forward to continuing these conversations, because I have a lot of family members who this would impact, and I want to ensure that they have the best education opportunities,” Velasquez said. “…People come to Fairfax because they have great schools. We just need to make sure they’re as safe as possible, especially for undocumented students.”