The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In dramatic 1 a.m. reversal, Alexandria City Council votes to put police back in schools temporarily

Alexandria Police Department school resource officers Gary Argueta, left, and Johnny Larios wave to students as they walk through the cafeteria at Alexandria City High School in June. The Alexandria City Council had voted earlier this spring to stop funding for school resource officers. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The Alexandria City Council voted early Wednesday to return police to the city’s public schools through June, reversing a narrow vote five months ago — over objections from the school board and superintendent — to pull the armed officers out of school hallways.

The middle-of-the night decision is the latest twist in a contentious debate over the Northern Virginia city’s School Resource Officer program, which sends five police officers to Alexandria’s one public high school and three public middle schools.

After several incidents involving students and guns this fall escalated safety concerns, parents and top school officials pleaded with the council to reinstate the decades-old initiative. This week, their calls were enough to sway just one key lawmaker.

“I’m willing to take that step back,” said council member John T. Chapman (D), who had initially voted to defund SROs. “We know this program is not a silver bullet, but we have to do something here tonight.”

Alexandria is removing police from its schools. Some students don’t want them to go.

The reversal marks a sharp departure from a movement by major districts around the country and in the D.C. area — including those in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Seattle, as well as in Arlington and Montgomery counties — to reduce or eliminate the presence of police in schools.

But city lawmakers, including Chapman, were quick to point out that their decision is not a return to the status quo in Alexandria.

With his vote flipping lawmakers’ 4-3 split on the matter, the council said it will also explore future, long-term options, including a “school safety coach” model pioneered by the city of Charlottesville. That initiative would send unarmed, trained adults to prevent and de-escalate hallway fights and other conflicts, lawmakers said.

City council members had previously also voted to reallocate the nearly $800,000 SRO budget to expand mental health and mentoring programs, including the addition of several counselors inside school buildings. Funding for those positions, which have not yet been filled, will remain.

In a statement, Alexandria City schools spokeswoman Julia Burgos said the school district is grateful to the City Council for its decision to reinstate the SROs.

“We want to thank the Alexandria City Council for its decision to work with us and agree to the reinstatement of our [SROs],” Burgos said. “SROs serve as a proactive safety mechanism while serving as a trusted adult for our students.”

The city council vote at about 1 a.m. Wednesday capped a tense, six-hour meeting occasionally punctuated by interruptions from parents and others in the audience. Several council members — largely led by Canek Aguirre (D) — grilled the city’s top school and police officials about the gun incidents and the school district’s response.

Much of the exchange waded into thorny questions of race and policing, as Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. and School Board Chair Meagan L. Alderton insisted that school resource officers were necessary to prevent and respond to recent incidents, including one in which a student took a loaded gun to school.

“It has been proven in this short amount of time that we really do need our school resource officers,” Hutchings told the board, adding that Alexandria may not necessarily fit into a “national narrative” about police.

Peter Balas, the principal of Alexandria City High School, reiterated that sentiment. “Our students are sending us warning shots — literal warning shots,” he said at the meeting.

But Aguirre blasted school officials for failing to explore other safety measures, calling for more discussion on the role of SROs and additional unarmed security officers who are hired by the district.

“I don’t believe that the safety of our children is contingent upon armed individuals in the building,” Aguirre, a former ACPS parent liaison, said in an interview on Wednesday. “I believe they can de-escalate and provide security without being armed.”

ACPS uses its own budget to staff about 21 unarmed security officers around school buildings. In response to the departure of SROs, Balas had also hired an off-duty police officer to provide additional security at during arrival and dismissal times.

Mayor Justin Wilson (D) — who had voted to keep the SRO program — called the discussion a “disaster,” saying the questioning of Alderton and Hutchings was “the biggest waste of time” he had witnessed in his more than 10 years on the body.

“I’m sorry we had to do this, quite honestly,” he said, at one point raising his voice and banging on his lectern in frustration. “This has been a horrific process from the beginning.”

Amanda Paga, a spokeswoman for the Alexandria police department, said the same five SROs will be returned to their former roles. She declined further comment.

Steven Gomez, who graduated from Alexandria City High School in 2019, said he welcomed that news.

The 20-year-old will take a test on Thursday as part of the application process for the Alexandria police academy — a career he said he chose because of his positive experiences with the two SROs stationed at his high school, Gary Argueta and Johnny Larios.

“Having them temporary, I think it’s a dumb decision,” Gomez said. “I think we should have them permanently.”

But Sindy Carballo, another ACPS graduate, said she was disappointed by the vote.

“It’s still going back to the same unaccountable system that has failed students,” said Carballo, now a youth organizer with the advocacy group Tenants Workers and United. Given the “long history of policing in Black and brown communities … they don’t feel that sense of safety when they see a police officer in the hallway.”

Aguirre, the first Latino elected to council, also praised Argueta and Larios’s ability to act as positive mentor figures, particularly for male Latino students who could see themselves in the duo.

But other school resource officers may not necessarily have the same impact or come from the same background, he said during the meeting. It was the program — not the duo — that was up for debate.