A proposed new agreement between Prince William County’s school division and county police department aims to reduce children’s exposure to the criminal justice system.
The school division released a newly revised “memorandum of understanding,” the agreement that governs the police officers’ role in the county’s public schools, last week. The document directs school administrators – not school resource officers – to handle low-level criminal offenses committed by children in schools.
“It is the goal of the [police department] and the PWCS that children are not unnecessarily exposed to the criminal justice system. Therefore, it shall be agreed that all minor criminal behavior committed by a child in the school setting will be handled by PWCS administration,” the memorandum states.
The memorandum outlines the rules, training and procedures that school resource officers, sworn police officers assigned to work in middle and high schools, must follow. Public comment on the document can be submitted on the school division’s website until Thursday, Dec. 30.
Prince William County Schools Superintendent LaTanya McDade sent an email to parents last Friday stating her support for the updated memorandum. McDade said the new rules “will help clarify the role of SROs in our schools and include new training and screening requirements – all with the aim of bolstering student and staff safety.”
An overhaul of the school division’s school resource officer rules by the school division and police department began earlier this year.
Prince William County Police Chief Peter Newsham said in September that the revisions would likely include new rules ensuring school resource officers do not arrest students for “minor offenses,” such as thefts and disorderly conduct.
“These are the types of things that can get our students unnecessarily involved in the criminal justice system... I think collectively, we want to get away from that,” Newsham said at the time.
The revision to the memorandum comes at a time when parents are increasingly concerned about a perceived uptick school fights in local schools. During a recent meeting of the school division’s Safe Schools Advisory Council, however, school officials said there has not been an uptick in fights when incidents are compared on an annual basis. McDade recommended that data be broken down by quarter to better assess whether there have been more fights at the start of this school year compared to previous years.
The revised memorandum continues to allow SROs to interview students without prior parental consent if they are investigating a school-related incident that could have potential safety consequences for students and employees, including student fights that may result in retaliation, threats against students or employees, gang-related offenses or drug or weapon possession.
At the state and local level, the debate over whether to remove police officers from schools throughout Virginia has been an ongoing conversation. School boards in Arlington County and the City of Alexandria both voted to remove police officers from their schools entirely earlier this year. Alexandria has since decided to return them to schools.
In Prince William County, the local NAACP has advocated for the removal of school resource officers from county schools entirely.
At the state level, the Virginia General Assembly enacted several new laws in 2020 aimed at closing the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
A new law banned disorderly conduct charges from being levied against Virginia students during school, on buses or at school-sponsored events. Another law removed a requirement that school principals report student acts that constitute a misdemeanor to law enforcement.