The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

School resource officers Gary Argueta, left, and Johnny Larios talk to Oscar Cortez, 16, a student at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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The two police officers, pistols on their belts and thumbs hooked through the straps of their bulletproof vests, watched as a handful of masked teenagers stumbled, slow and sleepy, from the bus.

It was 8:07 a.m. on a sticky Wednesday in June, nearly time for the start of classes at T.C. Williams, Alexandria’s only public high school. Although the coronavirus pandemic had shrunk the number of students attending in person, the officers were hoping that some of the boys and girls they knew would show up.

Johnny Larios and Gary Argueta had been working as school resource officers in Alexandria City for four years. Soon after they started, it became clear: Mornings were their best opportunity to get to know the teenagers.

The men had very few such mornings left.

In a surprise move in early May, the Alexandria City Council had voted — narrowly and against the wishes of school leaders — to stop funding the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. That meant Larios and Argueta would leave T.C. hallways at the end of the school year.

The decision followed a flood of similar decisions in the Washington region and nationwide. Inspired by calls for police reform that gained urgency after the killing of George Floyd, major school systems in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Oakland and Seattle cut back or eliminated their police presence. In the nation’s capital, a government commission issued a report calling the “daily presence of police officers in schools . . . antithetical” to learning. And in neighboring Arlington Public Schools, the superintendent had recently recommended ending the system’s School Resource Officer program.

Larios and Argueta decided to wait a few minutes longer. Larios spotted a boy in a white striped T-shirt walking up the sidewalk and nudged his partner. Argueta broke into a grin.

Oscar Cortez, 16, was one of dozens of students who played on the soccer team the two police officers had started three years ago, primarily to serve the low-income Hispanic students they had hoped to reach when they applied to become SROs.

Speaking in Spanish, Oscar asked the officers whether they would be leading a soccer team this summer. The officers had canceled the spring season because of the pandemic. Larios said he wasn’t sure yet.

Oscar traced a circle on the sidewalk with his toe. He had another question.

“Is it true,” he asked, still speaking in Spanish, “that you’re leaving us?”

The kids kept showing up

Taped-together file folders, punctuated by a small eyehole, cover the small window in the door to Larios and Argueta’s tiny office, A-110J.

Argueta came up with the makeshift window shade as a form of deterrence after colleagues complained about the constant crowd of students gathering outside. He also put up a sign warning, “NO STUDENTS ALLOWED WITHOUT A PASS,” and tacked on eight exclamation marks.

But kids kept showing up, flashing scribbled-on scraps of paper they insisted bore their teachers’ signatures.

Most just wanted to talk. But, over the course of a typical year, a handful came to report stolen Chromebooks or cellphones. Larios and Argueta would review security footage to identify the culprit, then hand the case to an administrator, because SROs do not get involved in disciplinary matters.

Nor do they play a role in student suspensions, said Peter Balas, the principal of T.C. Williams. In fact, most functions that people assume school police perform — such as breaking up fights — actually fall under the purview of administrators or the separate security force that Alexandria employs. SROs take action only when a student engages in criminal activity, Balas said, such as threatening peers with a weapon or bringing drugs or alcohol to school.

This happens rarely: Alexandria’s five SROs — the three others are stationed in the system’s three middle schools — made six arrests in the 2019-20 school year. These kinds of interactions took up a small fraction of Larios and Argueta’s time at school, they said.

Larios and Argueta, who are both 31 and from D.C., joined the Alexandria police force six years ago. Larios said he wanted to help people — “immediately, in critical moments” — and liked the idea of seeing or dealing with something new every day. Argueta was inspired by his mother, who worked as a District cop and used to take him on ride-alongs after school.

Four years ago, the men applied to become SROs. Both hoped to mentor Hispanic youth; Larios is Mexican American and Argueta’s family is from Guatemala.

The two men loved getting mobbed by kids near the buses or in the cafeteria during breakfast — then coming back to A110-J to find more students waiting.

Some wanted to know whether they should pay or fight a parking ticket. Others shared news of an unexpected good grade, or a fight at home. Soccer team members asked about upcoming games, and whether they could store their cleats in the office.

Twice, flustered boys came to beg for Larios’s help in asking their crushes to prom. He obliged, fake-searching one boy’s bag — as he blamed the watching girl for any contraband — only to pull out a “promposal” sign. The second time, he flagged down a girl while she was driving. When she pulled over, the boy popped out of the back seat of Larios’s cop car, gripping his own prom poster.

'A close vote'

Still, not all students liked Larios and Argueta.

At an Alexandria City Council meeting in early May, recent T.C. graduate Sindy Carballo cleared her throat and said “Hello” to the mayor, the vice mayor and eight other faces waiting on a video call. Then the 19-year-old, who is Hispanic, began her argument.

“National research shows that removing SROs is beneficial,” Carballo said. “We hope you will remember those who need your leadership the most.”

Nearly two hours of debate later, the meeting ended in a 4-to-3 vote to reallocate the $800,000 dedicated to the School Resource Officer program, which is about three decades old. The money will instead go toward mental health resources. Council member Mohamed E. “Mo” Seifeldein (D), who proposed removing the SROs, hailed it as a major step toward boosting students’ mental wellness, especially amid a devastating pandemic.

“It was a close vote,” he said, “but it was the right vote.”

In an interview in mid-May, Carballo said Larios and Argueta made her feel surveilled and uncomfortable, although she never interacted with the officers. She said she hated walking by men with guns on her way to class.

After Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis in May 2020, students nationwide have shared similar feelings, the loudest voices often from those of color. T.C. Williams, located in a swiftly diversifying suburb just outside D.C., is a quarter White, a quarter Black and nearly 40 percent Hispanic. The high school hosts a special program called the International Academy, designed for recent immigrants, that teaches students English alongside their regular classes.

Balas, the principal, said he has received only two complaints about the officers during their tenure at T.C., neither from students. Both came from parents who disliked the way Larios and Argueta handled criminal incidents involving their children. Citing the families’ desire for privacy, Balas would not elaborate.

Larios and Argueta said they used to hear occasional mutterings of “F--- the police” as students walked into school, back when they started. But those faded away quickly, they said.

Apart from anecdotal evidence of discomfort, critics of the school police program point to Alexandria’s track record of disproportionately suspending Black and Hispanic students, as well as national research showing that schools with more SROs have higher rates of drug- and weapon-related offenses. Supporters of the SROs counter that the police officers play no role in suspensions in the Alexandria school system, and argue that local data is largely missing, apart from bare student arrest counts not broken out by race.

In late October, after many rounds of revisions, Alexandria’s school board voted to approve a new contract with police. It added data-reporting requirements and clarified that students could not be questioned by school police unless a parent or guardian was informed. At the time, members of the school board and the superintendent, who is Black, spoke in favor of the contract, and of keeping the SROs in schools — but very few school leaders have spoken about the issue since.

This week, Schools Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. and Meagan L. Alderton, the chair of the board, deferred questions about the May 3 vote to end the SRO program to spokeswoman Julia Burgos.

“We respect the City Council’s decision,” Burgos said in a statement, “and will be working with our team to continue to maintain a safe and secure environment for students and staff in our buildings.”

When Larios heard the news, he said his first thought was to wonder where he would be reassigned. But his second was for the soccer team, and the kids who play on it.

'What do you do to keep going with life?'

Johan Ferrufino says Larios and Argueta — and soccer — saved his life.

Stress can’t reach him on the soccer field. Nor fear. Nor the anger he has felt almost all the time — toward everyone and everything — since his cousin shot him, his sister and then himself at an Alexandria park one afternoon in October 2017.

Ferrufino’s sister died, as did his cousin. Three bullets hit Ferrufino in his arm and one in his stomach.

Two years passed before Ferrufino felt anything close to normal. In the interim, he dropped out of school for seven months. He went to therapy to combat his depression, and to physical therapy so he could learn to use his hand again.

He still relives the shooting every night before he falls asleep. He still misses his sister, Jennifer.

“I feel it like it was yesterday,” he said. “She was pregnant. A month.”

Ferrufino, who immigrated from Honduras at age 10, is now 18 and on track to graduate T.C. this spring. Post-graduation, he will help his father start a construction company — and then he plans to enroll in a Virginia police academy. Eventually, he wants to be an SRO, like Larios and Argueta.

Ferrufino got to know the officers after the shooting. Larios and Argueta told him they were there to listen, whenever he needed it. When teachers and classmates recoiled from Ferrufino’s sudden anger, the men welcomed him into their office. They were the ones who suggested that Ferrufino see a therapist.

One day, standing in A-110J, Ferrufino asked if he could speak with total honesty.

“What do you do,” he remembered asking, “to keep going with life?”

Larios looked at him. “It’s hard,” Ferrufino recalls Larios saying. “But you’ve got to keep going.”

Not long after that, Ferrufino started talking to the officers about putting together a soccer team.

Saying goodbye

Outside of T.C. Williams High, Larios was sweating in his bulletproof vest as he faced Oscar, and the question that hung in the humid air.

Is it true that you’re leaving us?

The fate of the soccer team depended on what happened after the demise of the SRO program. If he and Argueta were transferred to patrol duty, as seemed most likely, they would have to work 12-hour shifts that stretched into the night. They would have no time to coach on the side, especially now that Argueta and his wife recently had a baby boy.

Larios would miss teaching kids to execute perfect stepovers, or watching his team connect a string of flawless passes midgame. He’d miss examining fraudulent student passes, and squeezing past a huddle of kids to get into A-110J, and watching a troubled teenager graduate.

Larios wanted to explain this. And tell Oscar how much he wanted to stay.

But he didn’t want to burden the teenager. And it was time for school.

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