School resource officers have become a familiar sight in Fairfax County middle and high schools over the past two decades, but questions about how they should balance their dual role as school administrators and law enforcement officials, as well as how they can ensure student safety without infringing on civil rights remain.
An ad hoc committee assembled by Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova and Fairfax County Communities of Trust Committee Chair Shirley Ginwright aims to clear up some of those uncertainties.
The School Resource Officer Community Review Committee assembled for the first time on July 2 at the Fairfax County Government Center to learn about the latest draft memorandum of understanding for SROs proposed by Fairfax County Police Chief Ed Roessler Jr. and Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand.
The SRO program is a collaboration between the Fairfax County School Board and the Fairfax County Police Department, necessitating an MOU to establish responsibilities for officers, school administrators, and the FCPD along with the procedures they must follow to carry out their duties.
The SRO Community Review Committee consists of 17 members representing civil rights advocacy organizations such as the Fairfax County NAACP and the ACLU’s People Power campaign, civic groups like the Fairfax Federation, and associations for parents and educators, including the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, the Fairfax County Special Education PTA, and the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.
“We were looking to get someone from all different cultures and communities, because their issue might not be the same as ours,” Ginwright, who chairs the committee, said. “However, there might be a piece in that MOU that might affect their kids, and that’s why we wanted to make sure we had an extremely diverse group of participants.”
Fairfax County’s SRO program has evolved significantly over the past few decades, according to FCPD Sgt. Bill Fulton, who has spent half of his 30-year career at the department working in the school system and is currently an SRO supervisor.
In the early 1990s, 16 schools in the county had full-time officers with the goal of forming relationships with students and staff in order to maintain a connection between the police and the community.
However, after the Apr. 20, 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, FCPS installed full-time SROs at all of its middle and high schools.
In addition to addressing potential threats of violence and responding to criminal activity, SROs occasionally get involved in school curriculum, though Fulton says that is primarily to teach driver education classes required for students looking to get their learner’s permits.
The FCPD previously also had school education officers in elementary schools whose role was to teach students about drug awareness, traffic safety, and other issues, but those positions were eliminated in the early 2000s due to budget cuts, Roessler says.
The MOU governing the SRO program was last updated in 2014.
Brabrand met with Roessler to discuss the MOU within a week of becoming superintendent in June 2017. They spent five months working on the 18-page draft presented to the SRO review committee on July 2.
According to Roessler, the existing MOU is not written in language that can be easily understood by the general public, so the goal of the revision is to come up with a more accessible document.
“The draft represents being transparent [with] plain language and hyperlinks to all the Supreme Court cases, the state code, and our general orders so everyone can have confidence and trust that we are not violating students’ Constitutional rights,” Roessler said.
Community interest in the new MOU increased last year after members of the Fairfax County NAACP met with the FCPD commander that oversees the SRO program in November or December, according to Fairfax County NAACP President Kofi Annan.
Annan says he was told during that meeting that the police department wants to expand SROs down to the elementary school level.
“We found that a little concerning and strange, so we started doing some digging, trying to figure out the data,” Annan said.
The Fairfax County NAACP says its research raised concerns that SROs have disproportionately targeted black and Latino students for arrest.
According to the FCPD’s annual report for 2017, SROs handled 1,836 police incidents and made 657 arrests that involved 226 black students, 410 white students, and 21 Asian students.
38.7 percent of FCPS’s student population in the fall of 2017 was white, while 10.1 percent of all students were black, according to enrollment data from the Virginia Department of Education’s School Quality Profiles database.
In particular, the Fairfax County NAACP has pointed to Sandburg Middle School as a case study illustrating the disproportionate impact of SROs’ law enforcement activities on students of color.
A reported 95 percent of students arrested at the Alexandria school were either African American or Latino, and most of the arrests were for disorderly conduct, trespassing, and other behaviors that were not directly related to safety, according to a FOX5 DC report from Mar. 7.
The NAACP believes that disparity stems from existing policies that allow for racial profiling and give officers the ability to get involved in incidents that should be handled administratively.
“The fact that kids are getting arrested for disorderly conduct in middle school is pretty ridiculous,” Annan said. “We need to draw some distinct lines to say here’s what they will get involved in and here’s what they will not. We want to make sure they’re only getting involved in really life-threatening situations.”
Roessler denies that the FCPD is considering putting SROs in elementary schools and says that the SRO at Sandburg Middle School did not make any arrests in 2015 or 2016.
According to the police chief, the data that the Fairfax County NAACP has cited was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the county’s juvenile court system, so the arrest numbers refer to juveniles who attend Sandburg, not those arrested by the school’s SRO.
Roessler published the incident reports for Sandburg Middle School from 2015 and 2016 on his website along with a statement about the SRO Community Review Committee, though identifying information for both students and officers has been redacted.
“That data that was FOIA’d represents either probation, parole, or a parent that was a petitioner because their child was a victim of a crime by someone else,” Roessler said. “…It doesn’t mean there was an arrest at the school. This could’ve been somewhere else. It just represents that they go to the school, so the data is being used unethically by several to accuse my SRO of arresting disproportionately minorities.”
Ginwright, who served as president of the Fairfax County NAACP before becoming chair of the Communities of Trust Committee, asked Bulova if she could set up an SRO review committee so representatives from the public could provide input for the new MOU.
The draft MOU, which has been posted to Roessler’s page on the FCPD website, outlines the roles of SROs, school principals, district station commanders, SRO supervisors, and the school liaison commander, who coordinates between the police department and FCPS.
The draft also addresses SRO training requirements, procedures for arrests and searches, and data collection and information reporting policies.
The SRO Community Review Committee convened for a second time on Monday to discuss comments submitted by committee members. A third and final meeting is scheduled to take place at the Fairfax County Government Center at 7:00 p.m. on July 16.
Roessler says that he and Brabrand hope to finalize the MOU after that meeting so the Board of Supervisors and school board can vote on it before adjourning for recess in August.
Annan says he was relieved to see some revisions to the MOU from previous drafts, including the elimination of a phrase making SROs responsible for monitoring “cultural and social influences.”
However, he says the MOU still needs improvement, particularly regarding distinctions between an SRO’s law enforcement and administrative duties.
Under the current draft MOU, SROs are sworn FCPD officers assigned to provide law enforcement expertise and resources to assist school administrators with “maintaining safety, order and discipline.”
While they are overseen by a police department supervisor, SROs are considered active members of their assigned school’s administrative team to “facilitate the effective delivery of police service, assistance with matters related to safety and security, and to facilitate the exchange of information.”
At the same time, school resource officers are not supposed to get involved in “routine school matters such as administrative actions or actions not directly related to the safety of the students and staff.”
During the July 2 meeting, Brabrand explained that disruptive behavior will now be considered an administrative issue except in extreme cases that could lead to an arrest, but some committee members still expressed concern that the MOU is not specific enough in terms of when school officials will involve SROs.
“I don’t really know the difference, and it’s still not clear,” Annan said. “So, we’re going to try to make sure that we get some clearer examples written into the policy as to what they can and cannot get involved in.”