Communities across the country are focusing on adding school resource officers in the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers in May.
Critics of the presence of police in schools point to studies that show the use of SROs results in arrests for students engaging in what a generation ago would have been considered minor misbehavior, and wonder why school systems aren’t doing more to try to meet the medical and mental health needs of their students with the money being spent on more police.
Both are fair points, and we raised these issues with Jeffrey Cassell, the superintendent of Waynesboro Public Schools.
Our first question: what is done by Waynesboro Public Schools to make sure that school resource officers aren’t used by school staff to criminalize school discipline?
Cassell pointed to a memorandum of understanding that the school system has in place with the Waynesboro Police Department defining the role of school resource officers.
The MOU emphasizes that “all responses to school misconduct should be reasonable, consistent, and fair, with appropriate consideration of mitigating factors and of the nature and severity of the incident. Students should receive appropriate redirection and support from in-school and community resources prior to the consideration of suspension, expulsion, involvement of law enforcement, or referral to court.”
“All administrators follow the practices and procedures of the MOU to assure that SROs are providing safety and security for students and staff and are not involved in disciplinary matters,” Cassell said.
Next question: does the presence of SROs in schools lead to arrests in incidents that would have previously been handled internally by administrators?
Simple answer from Cassell here: “The answer to your question regarding arrests is no,” he said.
The memorandum of understanding spells out directly that “(s)chool administrators and teachers are responsible for school discipline.”
“Although SROs are expected to be familiar with the school division code of student conduct, the rules of individual schools, and their application in day-to-day practice, SROs should not be involved with the enforcement of school rules or disciplinary infractions that are not violations of law.”
Our next question was actually for the police department: how many SROs are currently assigned to Waynesboro Public Schools?
According to Capt. Alyssa Zullig, who heads up the services division at the Waynesboro PD, the department has an assigned school resource officer supervisor who serves as the direct point of contact with school administrators to assist with day-to-day operations and any administrative needs.
At the moment, the PD has two SRO-specific job openings, as the department continues to struggle with staffing issues that have the roster down a third of its sworn positions.
In the interim, patrol shifts make up for coverage with extra patrols, walk-throughs, school zone monitoring, crossing guard assistance and any immediate needs of law enforcement presence, Zullig said.
Back to Cassell and the school system: what does WPS have in terms of resources for students regarding mental health and medical health?
A 2019 ACLU report found that 14 million American students were in schools with police but no nurse, counselor, psychologist or social worker.
Waynesboro Public Schools has been working in recent years to add personnel in the areas of school counselors, school psychologists, social workers and other mental health professionals to address the social, emotional and mental health needs of students, Cassell said.
Division-wide, WPS has four school psychologists, three school social workers, three behavior analysts (one of those is a part-time position), a head nurse for the school system as a whole, and one English as a second language family support liaison, in addition to school counselors and registered nurses on site at each of the city’s seven schools.
“Over the last few years, our capacity to address student mental health needs has increased dramatically,” Cassell said. “Our School Board and administration understand the importance of having mental health professionals available to provide proactive and reactive support. Our budget reflects this priority, and I am pleased to say that we have been able to recruit excellent professionals. We also have partnered with the University of Virginia to provide our mental health professionals with quality professional development as part of a grant from the Virginia Department of Education.”