Prince William County’s school resource officers – police officers assigned to work in public middle and high schools – could soon operate under a new set of rules regarding when students are subject to arrest for misbehaving in school.
The Prince William County Police Department and school division officials are in the process of revising the memorandum of understanding that dictates police officers’ role in school discipline matters, Prince William County Police Chief Peter Newsham said during the most recent meeting of the county’s Racial and Social Justice Commission.
One aim of the revisions is to ensure school resource officers do not arrest students for what he called “minor offenses,” such as thefts, disorderly conduct and fighting.
All are offenses that could be prosecuted under Virginia law and “in the past could result in an arrest,” Newsham said.
The MOU is being reworked to instead ensure that such behaviors are handled by school division administrators as matters of school discipline – not as criminal offenses, Newsham said.
The police chief called the change “a shift” from past protocols and a matter of police officers using their discretion about when a student’s behavior warrants and arrest and when it does not.
“These are the types of things that can get our students unnecessarily involved in the criminal justice system,” he added. “I think collectively, we want to get away from that.”
Newsham made the comments during a discussion about the police department’s first-ever use-of-force report, which was included in its 2020 annual report. The report showed that while Prince William County police officers rarely used physical force while making arrests last year, such instances disproportionately involved Black offenders.
School division spokeswoman Diana Gulotta confirmed on Monday that the school division is revising the memorandum of understanding with the police department. She said there is “no scheduled date yet for school board consideration, since there are still revisions in process.”
School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef said the school board hasn’t been given any details on the revised memorandum yet. But he said he believes the goal of the new agreement is to reduce students' involvement with the criminal justice system.
“My understanding is what they're trying to do is make sure we're really using the police like they need to be used, and not having them do things that they don't need to be doing. And then also not criminalizing or involving kids in the criminal justice system for offenses that, in the past, were really handled [by the schools],” said Lateef (At Large).
The debate over whether to remove police officers from schools has been an ongoing conversation at both the statewide and local level.
The school boards in Arlington County and the City of Alexandria both voted to remove police officers from their schools entirely earlier this year. They are the only two Northern Virginia locales to take such a step.
At the state level, the Virginia General Assembly enacted several new laws in 2020 aimed at closing the “school-to-prison pipeline,” including a new rule banning disorderly conduct charges from being levied against Virginia students during school, on buses or at school-sponsored events.
Prince William County schools had the largest number of students charged by police for school-based disorderly conduct from 2016 to 2018, according to a state report.
Black students were disproportionately charged with school-based disorderly conduct in Prince William County. Between 2017 and 2019, Black students accounted for half of all school-based disorderly conduct charges in Prince William County, despite making up only 20% of the school system’s total population.