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Alexandria City Public Schools approves revisions to contract with police

Fairfax County Police Officer Joe Plazi patrols the hallways at West Springfield High School in 2012. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The Alexandria City School Board voted Thursday to approve significant revisions to the school system’s contract with police — changes meant to boost accountability and equity amid a national debate over racism in American policing.

The new contract, which went through at least 10 draft versions, says that the school system will regularly gather disciplinary and policing data; break it down by age, race, sex and disability; then make its analysis public. The contract also clarifies student rights, declaring that children cannot be questioned by school-assigned police — known as school resource officers, or SROs — until and unless their parent or guardian has been informed.

Officials in Alexandria, which serves about 16,000 students in Northern Virginia, also inserted a new “Fair Treatment” statement into the 18-page document.

“Any action taken in response to disciplinary misconduct and/or criminal offense will be administered fairly and without regard to race, national origin, disability, religion, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation or marital or parental status,” the contract reads.

“We wanted to make sure that was in there,” John Contreras, director of safety and security services for the Alexandria City Public Schools, told board members at the virtual meeting Thursday.

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After about two hours of discussion, the School Board voted 6 to 3 to approve the contract, formally known as a memorandum of understanding, which covers the next two years. It will take effect when signed by the schools superintendent and Alexandria’s chief of police — which they must do by Nov. 2 — given that the city’s police force fields officers for the SRO program and funds it.

The revisions come after some in Alexandria, inspired by the massive summer demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism following George Floyd’s killing by police, called for police officers to be removed from school hallways. Their advocacy echoed efforts taking place in schools in the Washington area and nationwide.

In June, Maryland’s largest school system, Montgomery County, announced it would conduct a detailed analysis of arrest data and the use of SROs before deciding in January whether it would modify or nix school policing. Last month, Arlington Public Schools in Virginia agreed to undertake a similar assessment, forming a work group that will consider whether to keep the status quo, remove SROs or implement changes to its policing program. That group, meant to start work in December, is set to offer its recommendation by June.

In Alexandria, school officials spent months holding conversations and public hearings with teachers, students and families as they sought to decide whether and how to alter the contract with police, Schools Superintendent Gregory Hutchings Jr. said Thursday. The city’s school policing program, established in 1997, involves six officers: five SROs and one SRO sergeant, according to the city government’s website.

Hutchings noted that the changes incorporate suggestions offered by Alexandria residents.

Many of the alterations formulate specific guidelines for what the contract defines as “contact” between SROs and students: “questioning for law enforcement purposes . . . detainment of a student(s) [and] apprehension or arrest of a student(s).” All such contacts are considered reportable offenses, according to the document.

Contreras, the security director, said he and his staff felt it was important to insert that definition, which previous contracts lacked.

“There was a lot of discussion about what a ‘contact’ was,” he said. SROs “say that students stop and chat with them, ask for advice, do a fist bump, talk about sports . . . so we wanted to make sure we added a definition.”

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In addition to requiring parents be alerted before a contact between SROs and students, the new contract also establishes that students — in the presence of an administrator — must be informed of something akin to their Miranda rights, Contreras said. SROs must tell children the general purpose of any investigation, warn them against self-incrimination, explain that they can leave the interrogation, and note that they can halt the questioning and ask for their parents, guardians or an attorney at any time.

The contract also stipulates that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant “in all cases where initial consent was not obtained and probable cause exists that a crime has been committed.” It says SROs must obtain written consent to access a student’s education records from a parent or guardian if the child is 18 or older. And it sets up a requirement that administrators in Alexandria who oversee SROs receive training on the officers’ “roles and responsibilities.”

The most significant change, though, is the newfound emphasis on data gathering. At the Thursday meeting, some School Board members lamented the relative paucity of data on the actions of Alexandria SROs, which they said crippled their ability to make an informed decision on the program’s effectiveness.

Contreras promised the new contract represents a big step forward.

“You’re going to get pie charts” about arrests and suspensions, Contreras said. “We will break it down as detailed as possible.”

He said school officials should ultimately use the data, once it has been collected over the next two years, to evaluate whether law enforcement actions inside schools promote “a safe and equitable environment” for students.

Later in the evening, Hutchings mentioned that Alexandria does have some disciplinary data: information on student suspensions, which he said have disproportionately targeted “Black and Brown students.” Some Alexandrians referred to these statistics, Hutchings noted, when they urged the removal of SROs.

But Hutchings sought to clarify that SROs have nothing to do with suspensions, which are delivered by school personnel. He gave the fictitious example of a teacher who chooses to reprimand “Black and Brown kids playing in the hallway,” thinking they are engaged in a fight.

“Your bias may make you perceive there was something more happening, then we act on that, unfortunately,” he said. “But that’s an internal issue that we need to resolve; the SRO situation is not going to resolve that.”

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His arguments appeared to convince some School Board members, who praised the edited contract on Thursday and offered support for the school system’s SROs.

Board member Veronica R. Nolan (District B) said she had received a large “volume of interest” in the police contract from constituents — some of them students — and many of them asked her to fight to keep SROs in schools. She warned that taking away school police would demoralize Alexandria staff.

“I am really baffled by the advocacy we have received” pushing to eliminate the program, she said. “I can’t fathom taking away resources from kids we claim to champion.”

Other board members, such as Christopher A. Suarez (District A), were more qualified in their comments. He thanked those who advocated nixing SROs, because their arguments forced him to think more deeply about the issue.

Still, he ultimately voted for the contract, and for keeping officers in schools.

“I do think this is a good-faith attempt by the staff of the school system and the police department to get to a good place on this, even though it’s an incredibly difficult decision and there is no perfect answer,” Suarez said. But “I’m not voting for [the contract] in perpetuity. I reserve the right at any time to pull the plug.”

Others remained stalwart in their opposition. Margaret Lorber (District B) said she cannot accept the idea of guns and handcuffs in schools. She asked Alexandria Police Chief Michael L. Brown, who attended the meeting, whether it might be possible to install officers who lacked that equipment, but Brown said no.

Michelle Rief (District A) agreed, insisting the presence of police in school hallways is unwarranted, unnecessary and the “artifact of a failed policy.” Heather Thornton (District C) said she has seen studies showing a decline in juvenile crime in Northern Virginia.

“Kids of color have been over-policed; that’s just a fact,” she said. “Is there a need to have daily police presence policing young people?”

Brown called it the fundamental issue driving the debate over SROs, both in Alexandria and across the nation.

“Do you want us there or not?” he asked the board. “My SROs would be heartbroken, I will be disappointed, but I will respect the decision.”

He paused. “I can use these assets elsewhere in the city, in response to demands where the community would like to see our officers — you’d be surprised.”

Shortly afterward, the board voted to approve the contract.