The School Board was nearing the final step in a years-long effort to develop a new agreement governing the School Resource Officer program with a work session Tuesday night, but the plans were derailed when the Sheriff’s Office proposed a new version of the policy.
The board gathered for a work session with representatives of the Minority Student Achievement Committee and the Special Education Advisory Committee, the Sheriff’s Office and the Leesburg Police Department with the intent of taking a final walk through a draft memorandum of understanding for the program. Specifically, the school groups have been focused on ways to address concerns that Black and Hispanic students and those in special education programs continue to face discipline at disproportionally higher rates than their white or Asian classmates.
The board is seeking to replace the previous agreement, which expired in 2015.
Talks with parents and advocacy groups over the past two years resulted in a 20-page policy covering all aspects of the SRO program and the interaction deputies have with students on school campuses. School Board members expected Tuesday’s work session to serve as the final review before the formal adoption of the agreement.
That plan derailed, however, when the Sheriff’s Office last week sent over a new version of the agreement based on the most recent model published by the state Department of Criminal Justice Services. That seven-page document, Sheriff’s Office Major Easton McDonald said, represented the latest updates to state law and would provide clear instructions to deputies and school principals.
McDonald, a former SRO at Briarwoods High School, noted that Loudoun’s program has been held to acclaim as a model for other jurisdictions. While acknowledging the national conversations about removing officers from schools because of concerns the programs lead more minority students into the criminal justice system, McDonald said there are no such problems evident in Loudoun, where officers are focused on keeping students safe, both on campus and even in their home environments.
“What Loudoun County has done—the partnership between the schools and LCSO and the Leesburg Police Department—is a national standard. It is number one. And sometimes when you’re number one it is very hard to stay there. Everyone chases being number one,” McDonald said. “But when you’re the best at something it is hard to keep being number one, to keep being the best. We had an MOU and it was working perfectly until 2015. We have been unable to sign one since that time.”
MSAAC and SEAC representatives who have raised concerns for decades about the high discipline rates among minority students and those with Individualized Education Plans have pressed to make improvements through a new MOU.
McDonald noted that SROs are not involved in student discipline or in restraining students. Only two of the division’s 81,000 students were arrested during the 2019-2020 school year, according to figures provided to the board.
But MSAAC’s Katrece Nolan said the concern was not so much about the number of arrests, but the more than 2,000 times students were reported to law enforcement. She and other advocates are asking if those cases should instead be handled by a more robust mental health staff and worried about protecting the rights of juveniles without involvement of parents or guardians.
School Board members strongly objected to discarding the work that had been done in the long, detailed community conversation that had resulted in the updated MOU.
Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) also raised concerns that the new proposed agreement required the signature of the superintendent instead of the School Board. “We’ve made it very clear we want ownership of this,” she said.
MacDonald suggested the School Board start with the new model agreement and determine what additions school leaders wanted to make to it.
“We didn’t create a brand new document. I want you to look at this document more as a revised document. There is no law in that document that is outdated,” he said. “We can sign that and go. We have given you that for review. We are not expecting something from that today.” He characterized the draft agreement school leaders developed to a Model T, calling the new model a Tesla.
“I’m all about change. You don’t do things just because you’ve been doing them that way. But if the changes are making the document better where we have problems we are fixing, fine,” McDonald said. “But if the changes are changes that are not making it easier for the principals and the SROs, then we have to reevaluate it. Again, the document is there for you—the revised document—it is totally up to you on how you solicit your input.”
The School Board instead agreed to continue work from its draft agreement and directed the staff to work with the law enforcement agencies to determine whether there are elements in the new model that would require changes to its draft agreement.
“I value this program as much as you do because it is very important,” Sheridan said. “I don’t understand why our law enforcement partners left us out of this revision.”
Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge) acknowledged the highly acclaimed status of Loudoun’s SRO program, but said he was unwilling to ignore the raw emotional conversations that have occurred in the development of the revised agreement. “If it takes 22 pages to alleviate everyone’s concerns or 50 pages or 100 pages in think that is way we need to be,” he said.
The board is expected to vote on a final version in June.