By Brandon Martin
While some districts around Virginia have started the process of removing School Resource Officers (SROs), Martinsville representatives contemplate what is best for their students.
Mayor Kathy Lawson said she doesn’t support removing SROs “as they not only provide a layer of security to our schools but they bring to the schools training that our teachers/school staff may not have.”
She said that officers are trained in crisis management, de-escalation and to recognize when a “student is having a bad day versus a student being defiant and needing to take appropriate action. They give an ear to students who need that person to talk with. Our officers bring their training to the schools to offer advice on how to make the schools safer for the students and administration.”
Vice mayor Chad Martin said he supports having school resource officers and that “the conversation nationally, isn’t always what is happening on the local level.”
Even though he supports SROs in Martinsville, Martin said that the issue of criminalizing youth “whose brains won’t fully develop until they are about 25,” has led to issues which most experts have dubbed the school-to-prison pipeline.
He was referring to a report similar to one by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. According to the report “black children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 48 percent of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension; in comparison, white students represent 43 percent of preschool enrollment but 26 percent of preschool children receiving more than one out of school suspension.”
The report also found that “black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. On average, 5 percent of white students are suspended, compared to 16 percent of black students. American Indian and Native-Alaskan students are also disproportionately suspended and expelled, representing less than 1 percent of the student population but 2 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 3 percent of expulsions.”
Council member Danny Turner said that removing SROs “is exactly the wrong thing that we need to do. I won’t support it.”
Likewise, Turner said that he would not support any candidate running for the school board in the future that calls for the removal of SROs in Martinsville schools.
“Too many families take their children out of city schools because of fear of safety, and we really need to turn that around,” Turner said.
Council member Jim Woods thinks the decision should be left to the stakeholders who are invested most in the decision–parents.
“I don’t know if a city councilperson is the right person to make that call,” Woods said. “It’s the job of the school board to listen to hear from parents and students. When more voices are added, it’s a beautiful thing.”
He said he wants the children to be safe, and if any residents have ideas on how the council can do that better, then he encourages a discussion with the general public to find those solutions.
“It speaks to the student’s success,” Woods said. “When a student realizes we are all on the same sheet music then they are more likely to buy into the benefits of education.”
Woods added that he has yet to hear any complaints from Martinsville residents about SROs and that from his recollection as a parent, they have “always been someone (his children) could trust.”
Council member Jennifer Bowles said that she can understand the frustration and concern other localities are expressing with the SRO program, but that she formed her opinion after speaking with an SRO and a school board member.
“I believe we should keep our SROs at this time,” she said. “Our SROs work to build great rapports with our students and counter the negative connotations associated with police officers by their actions.”
She added that local SROs work to “build relationships with the administration, teachers, and parents to help make our school safer.”
Martinsville Police Chief Eddie Cassady said that he likes having officers assigned to the local schools.
“We want to provide as much safety and care for our students as possible, and part of that is ensuring that students can build a good relationship with law enforcement while they are still young,” Cassady said.
He added that while the city police provide a school resource officer to Martinsville High School and Martinsville Middle School, the Martinsville Sheriff’s department provides law enforcement officers at Albert Harris and Patrick Henry Elementary schools.
“I personally believe it is more impactful to have an officer present in the elementary schools,” Martinsville Sheriff Steve Draper said. “It gives them insight where they can approach a police officer.”
Draper said the tactic has worked especially well in Martinsville, where he said he has seen students come up and hug some of their resource officers.
Cassady said that Martinsville City Public Schools pays the salary of the resource officer at the High School, but that original funding began with a grant.
In 2019, Gov. Ralph Northam approved the General Assembly’s amendment to add an additional $3 million for a grant program to increase the number of Virginia schools with school resource and school security officers.
As part of the funding, the officers are required to attend training on topics such as adolescent brain development and trauma, mental health issues and students with disabilities.
Nelson Edwards and Tammy Pearson, among the candidates vying for a council seat, could not be reached for comment by press time.