William Fox Elementary School in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury 2019)
Legislation that would require every public school in Virginia to have a full-time police officer on duty is expected to come before House and Senate committees this week.
Sen. Bill DeSteph and Del. Karen Greenhalgh, both Republicans from Virginia Beach, filed matching bills in the Senate and House of Delegates that would require each school district to set up contracts with their local law enforcement agency to staff every school with at least one school resource officer.
An SRO is “a certified law-enforcement officer hired by the local law-enforcement agency to provide law enforcement and security services to Virginia public elementary and secondary schools,” according to state code.
The bills state that any division that does not fully comply with the staffing requirement is ineligible for any grant or waiver from the state.
“It’s just for parents to know that their children are safe,” Greenhalgh said on Thursday.
The bills are similar to legislation passed in Florida after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. If passed, the legislation would significantly increase the number of schools with a full-time law enforcement officer on duty, particularly in elementary schools, which in many localities have one officer who monitors several schools.
Advocates for the legislation are pushing it largely as a safety measure, while opponents say it’s legislative overreach and runs the risk of criminalizing typical schoolhouse misbehavior.
“We should have safety and security across all of our schools,” DeSteph said.
The bills mark a departure from some of the police reform efforts that came after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin.
SRO programs frequently find themselves on the pendulum of public opinion. School shootings typically fuel calls for greater police presence on campus, but when officers end up arresting students or are caught on camera using excessive force, the demands for their ouster grow.
‘The classroom environment must be safe’
A handful of school boards in Virginia eliminated school resource officers over the past two years, which Greenhalgh said was part of the reasoning for the proposed legislation.
In May of 2021, the City of Alexandria voted to remove SROs, but reversed course in October after several incidents raised safety concerns.
Richmond Public Schools considered eliminating the SRO program in 2021, but ultimately approved a series of reforms that mandated more training for officers, established a diversion program to end on-campus arrests for non-violent offenses and required officers to wear a “soft” uniform rather than the typical police uniform.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin has made the SRO legislation a priority, urging lawmakers to take action during his address to the Joint Assembly on Jan. 17.
“The classroom environment must be safe, so children can learn,” Youngkin said. “I’m asking members of this General Assembly to prioritize school safety by putting a school resource officer on every campus.”
Youngkin included $50 million for school districts to hire SROs in proposed amendments that he made to the $158 billion two-year budget that he received from former Governor Ralph Northam.
According to an analysis conducted by DeSteph’s office, the total cost for ensuring every school has an officer would be roughly $40.3 million yearly, with half covered by the state and half by localities. DeSteph said he has filed a budget amendment to cover the localities’ portion in order to avoid creating an unfunded mandate.
DeSteph said his staff began looking into the issue and discovered that there are currently 705 public schools in Virginia without an SRO, roughly 36 percent of the schools in the commonwealth.
DeSteph said his legislation was largely informed by a 2019 study on SROs, conducted by the Virginia Commission on Youth, a bipartisan body made up of nine legislators and three gubernatorial appointees.
The study did not specifically recommend legislation requiring SROs in every school, but many of the sources it cites generally link safer schools to having highly-trained SROs in place.
Opposition to the bill tends to run along two lines: concerns about legislative overreach and concerns about turning typical misbehavior into something that involves law enforcement.
Sen. Chap Peterson, D- Fairfax City, is often a swing vote in the narrowly Democrat-controlled Senate, siding with Republicans on some issues involving education. Peterson said Thursday that he opposed the SRO bills because they overstep localities’ ability to control their own school districts.
“There are extraordinary situations, like last year with reopening schools where we have to step in because the school boards aren’t moving on it,” Peterson said. “There may be a need for an SRO (in every school), but I don’t know.”
Del. Jeffrey M. Bourne (D- Richmond) said the proposals raise concerns about children having negative encounters with police officers at a young age.
Virginia had the highest number of student referrals to law enforcement, at 16 referrals per 1,000 students, according to a 2015 report by the Center for Public Integrity. That’s more than double the national average of six per 1,000 students.
A study conducted by Virginia Tech and cited in the 2019 Commission on Youth study on SROs disputed that finding, reporting that only 2.3 out of 1,000 students were actually required to appear before a court intake officer. However, Virginia Tech’s analysis also found that minorities and students with disabilities were disproportionately represented in the students referred to law enforcement.
The ACLU of Virginia has come out in strong opposition to the bills, saying that police in schools too often become the go-to person for enforcing discipline, increasing the likelihood that routine misbehavior could lead to criminal charges.
“Policing in school disproportionately targets students of color and students with disabilities, and the reality is that the presence of an SRO undermines the academic environment and allows for the escalation of routine administrative discipline,” said ACLU of Virginia Policy Director Ashna Khanna.
“Virginia should be talking about how we divest funding from SRO’s and reinvest in school nurses, counselors and other supportive services,” Khanna said.
Bourne said lawmakers should view school safety as a holistic issue that encompasses ensuring schools are structurally safe and that there is adequate funding for mental health and school counselors.
“We all have a collective responsibility to make sure our children are safe,” Bourne said. “For me, that does not necessarily mean putting more guns and law enforcement in the classroom and schools.”
Greenhalgh said local school boards could create policies to ensure SROs are achieving their intended purpose.
“I certainly hope parents don’t feel fearful, and I am hoping that having law enforcement officers in the elementary school will serve more of a community interest,” she said. “Have the children comfortable and know that the police are there to protect them, and maybe take down some of the fears that children have.”
Both Greenhalgh and DeSteph said they expect their bills to be taken up in committee this week.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.