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Police officers will remain in Richmond Schools, despite school-to-prison pipeline effect

woman at table
School board member Stephanie Rizzi said last night's vote was a small step forward in addressing the disproportionate impact policing has on Black and brown students. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Last night, Richmond’s school board voted 5 to 4 to make changes to the district's contract with the Richmond Police Department - after a vote to fully remove police from RPS schools by 2023 failed in September.

In a recent interview, board member Jonathan Young pointed to survey and public comment feedback district officials received that showed significant support from teachers, parents, and students to keep police in schools.

Last summer after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras announced he’d recommend removing police officers from city schools. Kamras said in a recent interview with VPM News that while he would still like police out of schools, he knows the majority of the school board wouldn’t support removing them.

The proposal just approved by the school board was his attempt to make some progress at ending the ‘school to prison’ pipeline. It includes the creation of a 10-person committee to oversee work with the Richmond Police Department to end arrests on school grounds for nonviolent offenses.

“The devil is always in the detail, which is why we want to put together this task force to talk through it all and come back and share, alright, this is how it would all look,” Kamras told VPM News.

Kamras told the school board Monday that a number of the arrests that occur on school grounds are for incidents that occurred outside of school. As part of ongoing talks with RPD, that’s something RPS wants more clarity on.

A spokeswoman with RPD told VPM News they were committed to working with RPS. However, RPD did not confirm by deadline if school fights – commonly classified as simple assault in arrest records – would be considered non-violent as part of the district’s new diversion program.

Jonathan Young voted against Kamras’ proposal Monday night because he said he had “inquired of the superintendent if, for example, this motion would preclude an arrest of a student dealing drugs in our schools, I was advised, yes.”

In the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 combined school years, there were nearly 400 student arrests in Richmond schools, the majority over fights and possession of marijuana.

Last year, VPM News published bodycam footage showing the arrest of an RPS student for possession of a lighter. The student was charged with disorderly conduct, which lawmakers outlawed as an appropriate charge for minors in 2020. 

“I questioned whether law enforcement needed to be involved with that,” said school board member Stephanie Rizzi in a recent interview with VPM. “He had zip ties. I feel like that's going a little far for a young person who has a lighter.”

A recent investigation from the Center for Public Integrity found that in 2017-2018, Virginia’s schools were collectively reporting more students to law enforcement than any other state, at three times the national rate.

Another Center for Public Integrity investigation in 2015 also identified Virginia as the top state for referrals in the 2011-2012 school year. The investigation revealed that Virginia middle-school students, some with disabilities, were arrested and charged with crimes such as felony assault on police and obstruction of justice.

“The bottom line for me is that they [police] represent an arm of our society that has not been constructively effective with their interactions with Black and brown communities,” Rizzi said. “You also have to understand that I'm coming from the perspective of someone who lost her father to a violent police encounter for something he didn’t do.”

According to the Urban Institute, there’s little research on the effectiveness of police in schools and the evidence that does exist is mixed.

Rizzi thinks Kamras’ proposal that was approved last night is a good first step, but didn’t go far enough to make changes to end the school-to-prison pipeline. She would have at least liked to see a pilot program where school resource officers are replaced by mental health professionals.

“Do it in one school, and see if it makes a difference before you just reject the idea that we cannot do this without SROs,” Rizzi said.

In mid-September, Richmond school board member Kenya Gibson recommended removing police from city schools by June 30, 2023 when the district’s contract with the police department is again up for renewal.

“We have to go back to where this story started, which was the death of George Floyd,” Gibson told VPM News. “We were called as a country to really recognize where we're at, and how much more work we have to do.”

Gibson’s pitch also proposed replacing school security officers with “community-sourced safety professionals,” and proposed the creation of a task force to develop recommendations for the district’s discipline policy and a district-wide restorative justice program in schools.

Gibson’s motion failed by a vote of 3 to 6. Only Gibson, Rizzi and board member Liz Doerr voted in support of the proposal.

Doerr and Gibson voted against Kamras’ proposal to keep police in schools Monday night because they didn’t think it went far enough.

“I would like to see us double down on our restorative justice and our trauma-informed care and create a vision where ultimately we rethink our program a little bit further,” Doerr said. 

Editor's Note: We slightly modified the first line of this story to clarify that Monday's vote was just about contract modification, not removal.