At a recent packed rally in Burke, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin said he'd require every school division in the commonwealth to staff all K-12 schools with an armed police officer, known as a school resource officer, or forfeit millions in state funding.
“When I’m your governor, working for you, every school will be required to have school resource officers on its campus. And let me be clear, they will be on every campus or that school will lose its funding,” Youngkin told a fired-up crowd gathered at a fire station in the Northern Virginia suburb on Oct. 19. “If you are a school board and you refuse to equip your schools with school resource officers to keep our children safe, you will need to find your funding for your school on your own.”
But Youngkin’s plan has left some wondering how that could play out in Virginia, where 95% high schools and middle schools already have an assigned school resource officer, but 67% elementary schools do not, according to the most recent Virginia school safety audit. That could put localities in the onerous position of either spending millions in local funds to put armed police officers in elementary schools or surrender, in some cases, half or more of their entire annual funding for public schools.
Virginia school divisions are funded by a combination of federal, state and local taxpayer money, but Virginia’s funding formula directs more state aid to school divisions in localities with less local tax revenue.
In Prince William County, there are 25 police officers primarily serving the county’s 30 middle and high schools, and five retired police officers working as security guards spread among the county’s more than 60 elementary schools. Under Youngkin’s plan, the county would need to hire at least 65 additional school resource officers to staff all elementary, middle and high schools in the county, or lose $600 million in state funding – about 49% of the school division’s annual budget.
Hiring those new SROs would fall to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, not the school board, as Youngkin suggested, and would likely require $14 million in new spending in the county’s general fund budget to pay for those positions.
Hiring one school resource officer costs around $218,000, a total that includes salary, benefits, and new police equipment, according to First Sgt. Jonathan Perok, a Prince William County Police Department spokesman.
Prince William County School Board Chair Babur Lateef, who is a Democrat, said in an interview that he believes Youngkin’s plan is irresponsible and "completely out of touch” with the needs of Virginia schools.
“We work closely with the Prince William County police. We believe our SROs already have good coverage. It does not make financial sense nor practical sense to have SROs everywhere,” Lateef said. “We need a much broader investment in education from pre-K through graduate school. Priorities must be to pay teachers more and invest in ways to recover from the learning loss of the pandemic.”
The debate over armed police officers in schools has been ongoing in the Northern Virginia region for years. Both Arlington County and Alexandria voted to remove police officers from their schools in 2021, but Alexandria later reversed their decision after several violent incidents at a local high school.
In Prince William County, the police department and school division officials are revising a memorandum of understanding that dictates police officers’ role in school discipline matters to ensure school resource officers do not arrest students for “minor offenses,” such as thefts, disorderly conduct and fighting.
Youngkin’s campaign did not respond to specific questions about whether local governments would be entirely on the hook to hire new SROs or if the state would step in to help localities who could not afford it.
In response to several emailed questions, Youngkin campaign spokesperson Macaulay Porter said Youngkin would appoint a new secretary of education and state superintendent by Dec. 1 to lead a task force “that will make recommendations on how to best keep our schools safe and open,” including “ensuring every school system utilizes school resource officers on its campus.”
“Glenn Youngkin believes that students have the right to feel safe and protected, and parents have the right to know their children are safe when they send them to school,” Porter said.
Reach Daniel Berti at firstname.lastname@example.org