As school systems nationwide grapple with questions of policing and safety, Alexandria is choosing to fund mental health instead of a law enforcement presence in its own schools: The city will reallocate $800,000 — previously used to keep police officers in schools — to hire more therapists for children and teenagers, and boost youth mentoring programs.
The 5-to-1 vote by the Alexandria City Council on Tuesday night caps off a contentious few months of debate on the city’s School Resource Officer (SRO) program, which had stationed five police officers in Alexandria’s public high school and three public middle schools.
The Alexandria School Board had voted to retain a contract with the SRO program last fall, but the City Council in May nonetheless narrowly voted to redirect the funds to the mental health initiative. Because police officers are city employees, the program is funded by the council, not the School Board.
At Tuesday’s meeting, School Board member Cindy Anderson said the council had “totally disregarded” her board’s decision and pleaded with council members to change course.
Instead, the council went ahead with plans to fund and create seven new positions meant to serve mental health needs in the Northern Virginia district of 16,000 students.
The new positions include an additional four therapists and a supervisor to handle students and school referrals, a public health nurse at the Minnie Howard extension campus, and a dedicated employee to ramp up and recruit volunteers for a citywide partnership of mentoring groups.
“We want to shift from a punitive system to a restorative system,” said City Council member Canek Aguirre (D), who called the vote to cancel the SRO program the hardest he has faced on the council. “This isn’t an indictment of the officers … This is another way to try and get more positive role models into our school system.”
Alexandria is not alone in that push. Since the killing of George Floyd last year prompted racial justice protests and a national conversation on policing, the role of law enforcement officers in schools has come under intense scrutiny. School systems in Denver, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and other major cities have in the past year slashed the number of police officers in schools or eliminated their presence, many in response to the concerns from students of color who felt uncomfortable with police around.
But the police officers’ departure creates a far less conspicuous — and far more expansive — question heading into the new school year: What exactly happens next?
In Alexandria, some proponents of the SRO program have expressed concerns about safety in school hallways without the officers, who were tasked with patrolling the halls and keeping order, and also often took on a more informal mentoring role.
Anderson said the rushed nature of the SRO cancellation has left schools to take a “stab in the dark” in planning safety measures and rolling out the new mental health programs come August, when classes begin.
“They’ve had to turn on a dime,” said council member Amy B. Jackson (D), who was the lone vote against reallocation Tuesday night. “They’ve had to be the Titanic that sees the iceberg and doesn’t crash.”
Kate Garvey, director of Alexandria’s Department of Community & Human Services, said that the mental health programs are not a one-for-one replacement for the school resource officers. Instead, they seek to expand the “continuum” of services to support students in need, particularly when it comes to prevention.
“This is about, ‘How do we make a stronger system? How do we bring things together so that we do have a stronger network of support for students and their families?’ ” she said.
Before the pandemic, her department staffed about six full-time and part-time therapists between Alexandria City High School, the Minnie Howard campus, Hammond Middle School and George Washington Middle School.
But with only 90 hours a week in total dedicated to meeting directly with students and their families, she said, students could sometimes be stuck on wait lists of as many as 30 of their peers — an especially acute problem for those seeking time with one of the two bilingual therapists on staff.
Garvey said that the additional staff will help address students’ increased need for therapists as they grapple with the effects of the pandemic, a reality that she said could triple demand compared with previous years. One therapist will be bilingual and another will be specially trained to respond to crisis situations in school settings, sometimes alongside a police officer.
Given the timeline to roll out the new programs, and the request from Anderson, Mayor Justin Wilson (D) — who had voted against the initial reallocation proposal — said he felt the process had frayed the City Council’s relationship with the School Board.
“I’m dismayed by where we’re at with our fellow elected body,” he said. “I don’t think we’re in a good spot, and we need to fix that.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Alexandria city police officers as county employees. They are employed by the city. The article has been corrected.