Four D.C. lawmakers are backing a proposal that would keep police officers in schools, reversing a measure that sought to remove law enforcement from campuses by 2025.
“Parents, school officials and others who support safer schools will surely advocate for this legislation,” Gray wrote in a statement. “Their voices speak volumes.”
The issue around school resource officers has been a point of contention between D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the council for years, but it has received increased attention amid concerns about safety as students — and adults — continue to be injured or killed near schools. In January, police said a man who worked with the city’s Safe Passage Safe Blocks program, an effort designed to keep students safe on their commutes to and from school, was killed in a shooting outside Coolidge High School in Northwest Washington. Before that, Andre Jamar Robertson Jr., 15, died in an October shooting near Aiton Elementary School in Northeast.
“School resource officers who are trained in how to deal with children, are trauma-informed, and can respond quickly to dangerous incidents when they do arise are a valuable part of our school communities and play a crucial public safety role,” Pinto said in a statement.
The legislation could, however, face obstacles on the 13-member D.C. Council. Several members railed against an effort last year that would have restored long-term funding for police in schools. Lawmakers are also facing increased pressure to curtail violent crimes, particularly those involving juveniles.
The D.C. Council originally voted to gradually remove school resource officers, or SROs, from campuses two years ago — a provision that was considered part of a larger package to advance the fiscal 2022 budget. Debate over the issue came one year after mass protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd spurred calls across the country to rethink approaches to policing in communities and schools. It also followed a report from the council-appointed Police Reform Commission, which called for curtailing the presence of police in the city.
As of January, about 60 SROs remained in city schools, down from more than 100 at the program’s peak, according to officials. Campuses also have armed and unarmed security guards and special police, Pamela Wheeler-Taylor, assistant chief of the Youth and Family Engagement Bureau, told reporters in January.
Scores of parents and teachers have testified about the resource officers at numerous council hearings since 2020 — ranging from arguments that officers make school safer to assertions that their presence only introduces students to the criminal justice system. Bowser (D) pushed to restore funding for police in schools during last year’s budget process but was unsuccessful. Five council members — White, Gray, Pinto, Mendelson and Mary M. Cheh (D), then representing Ward 3 — supported that measure, with eight others opposing it.
“Removing school resource officers from schools, it’s the nuttiest thing,” Bowser said in a February interview after meeting with principals who wanted SROs on their campuses. “They need help; they need their officers.”
However, redeploying officers into the city’s schools wouldn’t be easy, in part because of challenges with police retention and hiring. “We had officers leave the force and go work for other forces where they could be school police officers,” Bowser said.
A spokesperson for Bowser did not immediately return a request for comment on Gray’s proposed bill on Thursday. The mayor has expressed support for a separate measure recently introduced by Gray that aims to increase the number of D.C. police officers.
School safety concerns came up during a Monday oversight hearing of the city’s education agencies, where Patrice Billups, principal of KIPP D.C. Legacy College Preparatory, urged lawmakers to keep officers in schools. The phasing out of school resource officers, she said, has made it difficult to keep students safe.
“They help students get to and from schools, and serve as a liaison between school leaders and Safe Passage personnel,” Billups said. “They serve as a much-needed connection between KIPP D.C. schools and the larger community.”
Nicole McCrae, principal of IDEA Public Charter School in Northeast, also said she is a “strong advocate” of the SRO program.
“Oftentimes, when we are making calls to MPD to come and support, whether there’s a shooting that occurred down the street or close by, it is very difficult to ensure that we have that safe passage,” McCrae said. Officers have also built strong relationships with students and served as mentors.
Many education advocates, however, opposed keeping police in schools — even before council members introduced legislation Thursday to keep them.
EmpowerEd, an advocacy group for D.C. teachers, and Black Swan Academy, which works with Black youths, have recently pointed to research that indicates the presence of SROs can lead to increased distrust of law enforcement, suspensions, expulsions, student arrests and likelihood of gun violence in schools.
“We do need security and safety in our schools, but a focus primarily on armed officers as the only way to make schools safe misses the point, ignores the research and leaves us more vulnerable to escalating conflict and violence in situations that could be de-escalated by non-armed adults with the proper training,” the groups said in a statement recently.