CHS is One Step Closer to Defeating the School to Prison Pipeline

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Inez Goering, Staff Writer, Sports Editor

In the fall of the 2020-21 school year, former superintendent Dr. Rosa Atkins appointed a committee to provide recommendations for school safety. This was prompted by Charlottesville City Schools and the Charlottesville Police Department jointly ending the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for School Resource Officers (SRO’s).

A Memorandum of Understanding is a legal document describing a bilateral agreement between two parties. Virginia state law says that each year the school district has to have an MOU with the police department, but due to Covid-19 and the lack of people in the building, there was no need for SRO’s, and the MOU lapsed.

The MOU was revisited during the 2020 school year, a time when the social climate was sensitive towards police presence. This followed the murder of George Floyd and countless other victims of police brutality.

Dr. Atkins put together a school safety committee who would revisit the SRO model and convince the school board if it was necessary to keep officers in the school or not. The committee presented research to the school board that showed the benefits and detriments of keeping SRO’s. The decision lay in the hands of superintendent Atkins and the school board, who’s pressing question was, “What is the purpose of school resource officers?”

The committee defined the goal of SRO’s as to “maintain safe and supportive school environments for all students and staff to thrive via a preventative and proactive approach.” Which is a definition consistent with what we have seen our school officers do. “From my perspective, SRO’s have always been in the building to keep us safe from outside threats,” claimed Dr. Irizarry, CHS principal, “however, there was not enough research to give us a definite reason to keep officers in the building.”

Because school officers are licensed by the government, they have the authority to punish students by the law. Trends show that having officers in schools creates a “school to prison pipeline”, which is the disproportionate tendency of minorities and others from disadvantaged backgrounds to become incarcerated due to harsh school policies. Experts have identified factors such as zero tolerance policies and police presence in schools as large contributing factors to the pipeline. The decision to get rid of the SRO’s takes us one step closer to terminating the school to prison pipeline.

The school safety committee came up with a model that excluded the presence of law enforcement in the building while proposing ways other adults can ensure everyone’s safety. These new sets of eyes are called CSA’s (Care & Safety Assistants), and they carry out the duties of our former SRO’s without the ability to press criminal charges on students. The committee created a list of duties for our CSA’s (see Fig. 1) that mimic those of SRO’s, and eliminate all concerns regarding the lack of school safety. 

Figure 1 Zoom meeting with Dr. Atkins, school board, and safety committee

Charlottesville High School had two SRO’s, Officer Nash and Officer McKeown, who wanted to be here and create relationships with students. For the most part, students and teachers reported having positive interactions with our officers. Although this is great, these interactions don’t overrule the ambience the officers carried.

Dr. I expressed his view on this: “One thing we’re really cognizant of at this school is our perception. We have a diverse group of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and from what we’ve heard from our brown and black students is that the presence of officers alone is triggering.”

Given the inappropriate use of school resource officers in other communities and the negative media attention towards police, the school board found that the school taking discipline into their own hands is more apt than having law enforcement settle altercations. “Students and police do not need to be interacting at all unless it’s something positive” says Dr. I.

Charlottesville is a fairly progressive school district and one of the only schools in the nation attempting this new model without SRO’s. The CHS office is getting lots of phone calls from schools around the country asking how it’s going and what we did to get here.

CHS still has an MOU with the Charlottesville Police Department, and the state of Virginia requires the school to report incidents relating to drugs and weapons to Charlottesville Police Department. However this doesn’t mean CPD is required to press charges against students. A lot of times, CHS works with mental health resources at Region 10 and other agencies instead of pressing charges, attempting to reduce the risk of the school to prison pipeline.