Weeks of tension and frustration over violence in Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) boiled over last night with a small crowd of parents shouting at City Council members to restore the school resource officer (SRO) program.
In May, the City Council voted 4-3 in favor of reallocating funding away from SROs, a program started in 1997 that installed police officers in Alexandria’s high school and two middle schools. While the schools have additional security staff, SROs were authorized make arrests and carry weapons — a fact that made headlines in 2018 when an SRO accidentally fired his gun inside George Washington Middle School.
“My daughter with special needs is at ACPS,” said Jennifer Rohrbach, who drops her child off at school every day. “I witnessed two fights while dropping off my daughter. The lack of support for these kids, it’s distressing and upsetting. For me, as a lifelong Alexandrian… to hear those screams of distress, it’s unnecessary. There have been fights before, but not to this level.”
Rohrbach shared stories circulating among parents about extreme accounts of bullying and concerns about a “devious licks challenge” on TikTok. Rohrbach said the removal of SROs, intended to help reduce the school-to-prison pipeline, has made the schools unsafe for all students. Though she wore a shirt supporting Republican Mayoral candidate Annetta Catchings, Rohrbach said she’s traditionally liberal and that the protest was non-partisan.
“A lot of defunding the program was about the African American population, but this is about all kids,” Rohrbach said. “Now no one is being served. I’m looking for safe schools for all students.”
Catchings was one of those protesting in support of restoring the SRO program.
“I’m out here in solidarity with parents,” Catchings said. “On the drive over, I thought back to the start of my campaign holding an ‘Open ACPS‘ sign… we have to make school a safe environment that isn’t toxic.”
One of the protestors, Roxana Guerra, is the parent of a 7th grader at George Washington Middle School. Guerra said she’s been in a state of constant anxiety after her son was assaulted in school.
“Two weeks ago, my son was bullied,” Guerra said. “His mask was pulled and he was slapped in the face. I didn’t find out until another parent told me, then the dean confirmed it… that he was hurt. I have anxiety every day and hope that he comes home safe. Finding this out by a third party was concerning, and anything could happen if these kids are coming in with weapons. I want our kids to be safe.”
Others at the protest noted that parents are so on edge a firecracker set off an evacuation from Alexandria City High School’s stadium during a football game.
“I’m a native Alexandrian, a product of ACPS,” said Liz Fuller. “The violence in schools is shocking. Children are not safe in school… Administrators are being pushed down in fights, security is being pushed, children are suffering brain injuries. The City Council has to listen to parents. They need to be held accountable. They defunded SROs with no plan.”
Protestors cornered City Council members who voted to defund the program as they entered City Hall, demanding that they change their position. Two, John Chapman and Canek Aguirre, briefly spoke with the crowd. Amy Jackson, who had voted against defunding the program, received more of a hero’s welcome from the crowd as she entered the building.
At the City Council meeting, City Councilman John Chapman said there have been ongoing discussions between the City Council and School Board over the issue of violence in the schools, but that there is some lingering bad blood over how things shook out earlier this year that have stalled talks to revisit the SRO decision.
“Part of our conversation was really framed around recent incidents that happened around the high school,” Chapman said. “School Board members talked about their position and what they feel needs to be done. Frankly, what my thoughts were on what needs to happen are: if any options need to be opened up, I think [that involves] a lot of discussion with Council members and School Board members.”
Chapman said the idea of a forum discussing the issue “didn’t really catch on with School Board members.” Other members of the City Council were similarly skeptical of establishing a subcommittee to examine the issue, saying that a subcommittee would only include two individuals from each body and a discussion of this caliber needed more of their respective groups involved.
But Jackson also said that there’s some urgency to the discussions; not just because of the ongoing issues at the schools, but because the city is already working on preparing next year’s budget.
“Would it be possible, because of the incidents at ACHS and the middle schools, to have that forum scheduled sooner rather than later,” said Jackson, “especially if we need to look at that in the budget season to put money back? If the opportunity arises, I’d hate to be behind the 8-ball again.”
“When I raised that as an opportunity, it did not fall on willing ears,” Chapman said. “I don’t know if we’ve gotten to a place where folks are willing to do that.”
Mayor Justin Wilson, who voted against defunding the SRO program, said it’s worth noting that current security measures involve hiring police to patrol the perimeter of the school and areas that are common gathering places for students.
“I think it’s important to note though… some of those positions are being funded as an extra duty assignment out of the ACPS budget and some are coming out of patrol staffing covering the city,” Wilson said. “Those are not alternatives that are coming without cost, they have a cost to our patrol strength and the school budget. We have also made some policy on the fly as we attempt to adapt. I’m not opposed to a joint work session with the school board, whether that’s a public meeting or town hall, but we’re going to need to craft the agenda and structure very carefully. I don’t think there is great merit in having the two sides of this issue repetitively laying it out again unless there’s an approach [planned]… we want to make sure it’s a productive conversation for all.”
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