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Alexandria’s School Board and City Council butt heads over school safety

Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) leadership presented some recommendations for a school safety plan to City Council members, but faced some pushback that the process is moving too slowly and occasionally missing the point.

ACPS leadership presented interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt’s recommendations for a School Law Enforcement Partnership (SLEP) in a joint City Council/School Board meeting yesterday. Broadly, the recommendations emphasize continued funding of school resource officers along with a reexamination of protecting student confidentiality and new de-escalation strategies.

One focus of discussion early in the meeting was a need to address some of the roots of school violence.

“We do have conversations with our [Alexandria Police Department] counterparts in general as it relates to school safety data that we present,” said Alicia Hart, director of facilities and operations for ACPS. “In the last three reports, we’ve noted our black males have the highest number of arrests in the high school and middle school categories. It’s going to take a lot of conversation to dig into the why behind that. Again, some behaviors that we may be seeing, that are not unique to students of color, but some are escalating to criminal activity which is now being reflected in our arrest data, is something that we need to dig into more.

Police Chief Don Hayes said pushing back against violence, like the murder of a student at McDonalds last year, is a community effort:

We are meeting with the community, the managers of the shopping center, the schools… all of us are putting our heads together to develop a strategy on how to approach this. The approach is not to make arrests, that is not the goal. The goal is to find out how we can get ahead of that and how we can get them to a point where mcDonald’s is not the hang out place. A lot of people don’t want to talk about this, but a missing part of this is the parents that need to be involved in these situations. We need to be able to contact them to come up with a comprehensive plan.

Hayes said the Bradlee Shopping Center is paying for the police officers to monitor the gathering spots for local teens, but Hayes also said the solutions can’t just be police-led.

“It’s not just a police situation, it’s got to be the community,” Hayes said. “It has to be teachers and everybody coming together. Something as simple as moving a bus stop from in front of the McDonald’s would alleviate [the problem] because that’s where the kids get off… but it’s not that simple. We’re looking at outside-the-box type things to resolve this situation, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Meanwhile, School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said there were structural issues at play within ACPS that need to be addressed.

“I am willing to bet that we would find trends that students who are being arrested are Black males,” Alderton said. “I’m willing to bet we would see overrepresentation in discipline data and not so great academic data. We have to address all of those. When we’re seeing the arrest, we’re seeing the symptoms. If we can tackle those inputs: how are we addressing academic achievement for our black males? How do we engage with them socio-emotionally? We have to dig into this so deeply, it’s such a huge and heavy lift, but we have to do that.”

The discussion comes as the School Board and APD need to approve a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) before the end of the school year in May. The current MOU between ACPS and APD allows SROs to work within ACHS and Alexandria’s middle schools and runs until the end of May. The two-year agreement was set to expire last October and was extended in November.

City Council members, by and large, expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the process up to this point. Council member Canek Aguirre compared Alexandria’s process to a similar safety review process in Arlington and lamented that Alexandria’s process has been slower.

City Council member John Chapman said the pieces of the school resource officer (SRO) discussion seemed stuck back where they have been for years and fundamentally missed the point of City Council’s concerns.

As we’re talking about [SROs] being a specific piece of the puzzle, looking at that specific piece and seeing how we adjust that, how we make that more student friendly. Everyone on Council understood there was an opportunity for benefit to extracurricular activities and a real strong connection with individuals there… but as I note what happened with the subcommittee, I didn’t see innovative steps or pointing to other jurisdictions doing things different. It seems like we just want to keep what we have and add training… rather than looking at the needs of our kids and providing something that says ‘we want to build a relationship that might not be what we do now.’

That was the main thrust of what council was looking at: how do we change the regular mode of what our SROs are and look at something more innovative and modern, something more student-friendly… and that seems to be missed from where we are today.

Hart said the discussion around SROs won’t stop with the SLEP recommendations.

“I think there is an opportunity to still get there,” Hart said “even if it didn’t necessarily come out of this particular advisory group.”

“This is not the end,” said Alderton. “If people are concerned about the length of time: I think six months is a pretty quick turnaround. This is not the only work [our staff] is doing, so we’re going to have to take this in chunks, we just have to, if we’re going to be respectful to the other work that goes into running a school and a city.”

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