Law enforcement, although no longer stationed in schools, will still step in to help the school system if a crisis arises, Superintendent Francisco Durán said Thursday. It is not yet clear where officers will be located come fall. Durán said he will work closely with Arlington’s police chief over the summer to hash out the details.
Durán said the new setup might involve assigning regular Arlington police to beats that include school campuses. He also said the role of SROs will be retooled: Officers will connect with students in more informal recreational and educational settings, during evenings and over weekends.
School personnel will step up to fulfill daily functions that formerly fell to SROs. A school task force had previously concluded that SROs spend most of their time inside schools performing “duties . . . outside of their law enforcement” responsibilities.
“I know there are some in the community that are anxious about the changes,” Durán said, but he promised Arlington’s schools will be just as safe as before. He said he plans to meet monthly with the police chief going forward.
“We are going to reimagine the relationship” between the school system and the police, Durán said.
Durán first proposed removing police officers from the Northern Virginia school system of 23,000 at a board meeting earlier this month. He based the recommendation on the findings of a work group that spent five months studying Arlington schools’ relationship with the Arlington County Police Department.
In the wake of Thursday’s vote, Arlington school officials plan to develop a training program that will teach staffers and administrators how to intervene in incidents once handled by SROs, according to a school presentation. Officials will also debut a program educating Arlington police on how to better engage with students on emotional, cultural and community issues. The school system will continue to host police officers to lead educational programming for students.
And Arlington schools will create a “regular, transparent mechanism” to collect and share data about how school police are performing, according to the presentation. The district will further consider forming a community advisory group that would annually review and offer input on the school system’s relationship with police.
The decision in Arlington follows a flurry of similar moves taking place both nationwide and in the Washington region. Many large school systems — including those in Oakland, Calif., Minneapolis and Los Angeles — curtailed or eliminated their in-school police forces following the killing of George Floyd and protests against systemic racism and police brutality that began after Floyd’s death.
In neighboring Alexandria City Public Schools, the city council recently voted to stop funding the school system’s decades-old School Resource Officer program, pulling five officers from Alexandria’s three public middle schools and one of its high schools. The money, $800,000, is instead going to mental health resources and the SRO unit will be shut down.
Proponents hailed the move as a step toward making all children feel comfortable in school hallways; some students said the presence of officers with guns was disquieting. But other students at T.C. Williams High School had become attached to the school’s two Hispanic SROs, who had started a soccer team largely for low-income, non-English-speaking teens.
Arlington police have maintained officers in the school system since the 1960s. Historically — as is the case across America — the school system’s students of color have been referred to law enforcement at higher rates than their White peers.
The SRO work group, formed in December, comprises 40 school staffers, parents and students. The group regularly consulted with school resource officers, as well as school employees and community agencies. Its final report numbered 10 pages and concluded that “SROs should not have permanent offices or a daily on-site presence in the schools.”
After reviewing the report, Durán gave a presentation to the school board on June 3 calling for Arlington to remove police from schools and proposing alternative measures to ensure student and staff safety. Board members had nearly a month to digest the details before Thursday’s vote.
At the meeting, several Arlington residents who served on the SRO work group took advantage of a public comment period to share their support for removing the police. But they also urged further action — that the school system put pressure on the county to reallocate the millions dedicated to the SRO program to other initiatives.
“We need to move the money to where the needs are,” said Eric Lotke, a 25-year resident of Arlington County. “Mental health guidance [and] counselors, not badges [and] uniforms.”
Symone Walker, an Arlington schools parent who also served on the work group and said she is a member of the county’s NAACP branch, said the county must take its $3 million and put it toward restorative justice practices instead.
She said her time on the work group left her convinced that Arlington has an “administrator problem,” not just “an SRO problem.” Walker said she believes school administrators have developed an unhealthy reliance on SROs, calling them in too often and “weaponizing” the officers against students of color.
“Simply removing them from our schools will not resolve this problem,” she said. “A mind-set shift to restorative practice and relationship building is an absolutely critical next step.”
The speakers found a receptive audience.
Just before the vote, Arlington school board member Cristina Diaz-Torres said she would like to see the money for the SRO program go toward mental health resources instead.
“There’s so much that we need to do to beef up mental health supports for all of our students,” Diaz-Torres said. That way, “they never have to interact with an SRO or the criminal legal justice system at all.”
After the motion to remove SROs passed in a 5-to-0 vote on Thursday, applause rang out briefly in the meeting room.