Thousands of peaceful protesters march along Broad Street in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury

Less than a year ago, a Democratic challenger trying to unseat then-Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox was put on the defensive after he ran an attack ad claiming she called for the removal of police in schools. In 2018, months after a deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a bipartisan House committee called for more funding and greater support for school resource officers.

But after the death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement in Minneapolis, and ensuing protests over discriminatory policing, the use of school resource officers is facing increasing scrutiny from some members of Virginia’s majority Democratic legislature. Last week, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, asked parents to share their thoughts on school law enforcement after House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert tweeted that “The left is starting to push police out of schools…This will not be what suburban moms bargained for when they voted for Democrats.”

A few days earlier, Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, released a “legislative call to action” with a specific proposal to end police contracts with local school systems. On Wednesday, Hashmi said she’s working with several Democratic legislators on a potential police reform omnibus bill. Some of the legislation could be introduced as early as August, when Gov. Ralph Northam has indicated he plans to reconvene the General Assembly for a special budget session.

“I think if we’re looking at reforming our policing measures and if we’re looking at reforming criminal justice, we have to look at the root causes,” Hashmi said. “And I think a lot of times, in our research, we find those root causes stem back to our school system.”

It’s not the first time that legislators have examined the role of school resource officers, currently stationed in roughly 55 percent of Virginia schools, according to the most recently available survey from the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services. Data suggests the prevalence is much higher in middle and high schools, with more than 90 percent reporting “safety/security personnel working full or part-time,” according to the report, which does not specify whether “personnel” includes law enforcement along with school security guards.

The 2020 legislative session saw a slew of successful bills aimed at what advocates often describe as a too-close relationship between schools and the criminal justice system. Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, introduced two that addressed disorderly conduct charges, which attorney Amy Woolard with the Legal Aid Justice Center said are among the most commonly levied by school resources officers.

One bill excepts students from disorderly conduct charges if the actions occur on school property. The other eliminates requirements for school principals to report certain incidents to law enforcement that could be charged as minor misdemeanors. Two additional bills from Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, implement new reporting requirements for incidents between school resource officers and students and require school districts to update their memoranda of understanding with law enforcement agencies more frequently.

But while concern over police in schools isn’t new, Woolard said the current climate in Virginia feels different. 

“I think structurally, where we’re seeing  is the beginning of a conversation that a lot of people on the school side, and even some parents and communities, never contemplated could exist,” she added. “This concept of having police in schools has not typically been a partisan one.”

A disproportionate impact on students of color

That’s largely because officers in schools have often been viewed as a way to keep students safe, said Gilbert, who described himself as “taken aback by the sudden 180-degree turn of some legislators.” In 1999, weeks before the Columbine shooting, the General Assembly established a matching grant program to help local school districts hire school resource officers. Those officers should “be employed to help ensure safety and to prevent truancy and violence in schools,” according to the language of the code.

The program was defunded in 2008 at the start of the Great Recession, then brought back in 2012 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Woolard said. Last year, the state distributed roughly $3.5 million dollars in grants to local school districts, months after Gov. Ralph Northam approved a budget amendment to add $3 million to the program.

“It doesn’t seem like so long ago that legislators from both sides of the political divide were in full-throated support of having police in schools to protect children,” said Gilbert, who opposes calls to remove law enforcement from local districts. But Woolard said there have always been “champions here and there” in opposition to the program. Often, Hashmi added, the objections came from parents and teachers.

“I’ve had many conversations, and not just recently, with parents and teacher groups expressing great concerns with [school resource officers],” she said. Woolard said she can still remember an incident in Charlottesville when a school resource officer forcibly removed a screaming kindergartener from a classroom over the objections of a teacher.

“We’ve seen incidents around the state of pepper spray being used on students,” she said. While localities have the option to hire school resource officers, and can tailor their roles and responsibilities, Woolard said many MOUs give law enforcement broad leeway to arrest or restrain students on school property.

Federal data also shows that law enforcement in schools has a disproportionate impact on students of color — a large reason why school resource officer programs are facing renewed scrutiny after Floyd’s death, Hashmi said. A 2015 report from the Center for Public Integrity showed that Virginia topped the nation in referring students to law enforcement, with African American students referred at nearly twice the rate as white students, according to 2011-12 data from the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection. 

The agency’s most recently available data, from 2015, shows that Virginia still ranks second-highest overall among six states in the region — including Maryland, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia — in student referrals to law enforcement. Across the state, roughly 8.4 white students per thousand are referred from schools to police. For African American students, the rate rises to 21 students per thousand.

In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union released an influential paper called “Bullies in Blue,” which referenced one report of a Virginia middle schooler charged with assault and battery with a weapon for throwing a baby carrot at her teacher. In another case, an eighth grader was Tased for “disruptive behavior.”

“Based on my conversations around town, my discussions with families in my district, many do view school resource officers with some skepticism and are inclined to believe those studies and statistics that say, in many cases, that they do more harm than good,” Simon said.

‘I’m not someone who’s going to rush out and say we should yank every officer from Virginia schools tomorrow’

Still, the future of school resource officers in Virginia remains uncertain. Simon compared calls to remove law enforcement from schools with the new “defund the police” slogan that’s emerged over the course of the Floyd protests.

“I think it’s important to parse the slogans from the actual policy,” he said. For Hashmi, removing police from schools would involve defunding the state’s grant program and “continuing to have conversations” over whether localities should be able to hire school resource officers. For Simon, it involves looking at the data on how officers interact with students in Virginia — information that won’t be collected until VanValkenburg’s bill goes into effect on July 1 — and asking local districts to revisit their contracts with law enforcement agencies.   

“It’s not something we have to study for years and years,” he said. “But I’m not someone who’s going to rush out and say we should yank every officer from Virginia schools tomorrow. I do think it’s important that localities and school systems are encouraged to look at their memoranda of understanding and make sure there’s clarity in what the role of a school resource officer is.”

While most of this year’s bills from Mullin and VanValkenburg passed with wide bipartisan support — with the exception of Mullin’s bill to exempt students from disorderly conduct charges on school property — it’s not certain how Republican legislators would react to calls to defund school resource officers completely. Gilbert, who voted against all four bills, said he was open to reviewing current regulations regarding school resource officers, but flatly opposed the idea of eliminating them entirely.

“I’m shocked at how far this is going, in terms of this whole ‘police are the enemy, defund the police’ movement,” he said. “If that’s going to go all the way down to the level of ensuring that our children have protection from the very real threats they face and the actual criminal activity that can take place on a school campus, it really shocks my conscience.”

The Virginia Education Association, a prominent union representing more than 40,000 teachers and other school staff, declined to comment specifically on the issue of removing law enforcement from schools. Spokesman Tom Allen referred back to a June 3 statement from president Jim Livingston, which described VEA as “committed to the necessary actions to ensure all marginalized students and their families are treated with dignity and respect” with no specific policy recommendations.

“We’re letting that be our comment for now,” Allen wrote in an email on Wednesday.

Ben Kiser, executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said the organization currently supported allowing localities to make their own decisions on placing law enforcement in schools. The same view was echoed by the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.

“Let localities decide whether or not they want to keep their [school resource officers],” executive director Dana Schrad wrote in a Tuesday email. “If the locality decides to discontinue their [school resource officer] programs, then it will be up to school officials to be ready to respond when a crisis occurs.”