Dear Editor, 

School resource officers – police officers on “special assignment” to provide law enforcement services on school campuses – have become a popular option for ensuring school safety, but they don’t protect all students the same. For some students, adding more school resource officers actually risks their safety. These kids tend to be students of color and students with disabilities. Based on the Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2015 to 2016 school year:

• Students in Virginia were more than 2 times as likely to be referred to law enforcement compared to the national average

• Students with disabilities were more than 6 times as likely to be referred to law enforcement compared to students without disabilities 

• Black students were about 2.5 times as likely to be referred to law enforcement compared to white students

The school resource officers must’ve had a good reason for these actions, right? We all hope so, but students are often referred to law enforcement for minor issues, like having bad grades, being tardy, and being disruptive in class. I’ve done all these things and, as a person of color and a former Fairfax County student, I likely could have been arrested for my actions. I would’ve been one of many students to be shoved into the school-to-prison pipeline, meaning I would’ve been more likely to drop out of high school, get a criminal record, have inadequate housing, and get paid a lower wage. And maybe I could’ve overcome these obstacles and fought my way to where I am today, but is it fair to derail a kid’s life over being late to school? 

Even if you don’t take it from me, take it from the kids who are in school now. In the 2020 Virginia School Climate Survey, about 1 in 4 students noted that they “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed’’ that a school resource officer made them feel safer at school and these were often students of color. Keeping some kids safe while putting other kids in danger isn’t school safety. It’s reminiscent of the “Separate but Equal” doctrine that made racial segregation legal – something Virginia historically advocated for. This doctrine granted white students a decent education while taking that away from students of color, particularly Black and African American students. We’re still doing the same thing, just under a new name of “school resource officers.” 

On January 15, 2022, Governor-Elect Youngkin will officially be inaugurated into office, marking a significant push in policing policies throughout the state of Virginia. During a campaign rally on October 19, Youngkin said he’d require every school to have school resource officers and threatened that any school that resists this policy will lose its funding.

If there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that we want our kids, our friends, our neighbors, and our community to be safe. So, how might we do that? Let’s urge the Fairfax County School Board to hire more counselors, social workers, and psychologists. 

• If a student has bad grades, maybe they’re not a bad student, but they’re struggling with depression or anxiety? Let’s refer them to a psychologist to work through the causes of those issues together. Let’s connect them to a tutor to help them bring their grades back up. 

• If a student is late to school, maybe it’s not that they don’t care about school, but they have additional responsibilities at home? Let’s have a counselor check in with them and help them make the most out of the time they can be at school. Let’s connect them to a social worker to help them balance responsibilities at home. 

• If a student is disruptive in class, maybe it’s something that’s outside of their control? Let’s hire specialists to provide alternative learning strategies so these students can stay in the classroom and contribute in a way that works for them.

School resource officers currently tackle many of these issues and they have to be trained in these specialties in just 6 months. Even still, adding school resource officers may protect some students, but they disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities. Let’s reinvest these resources spent on additional training for police officers into hiring professionals who have devoted their careers to student wellness. Our police officers could then focus their efforts on actual crimes, all our students could thrive in a safe school environment, and, as Youngkin promised, we might just see “a new day in Virginia.” 

Manjari Kumarappan

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