Despite objections from a majority of its school board, the Alexandria, Virginia, City Council voted Tuesday night to spend funds originally meant to pay school resource officers (SROs) to hire more mental health professionals.
The council decided in May to eliminate the $789,909 from the 2022 budget that had been used to fund the SRO program.
In the Tuesday council meeting, members approved with a 5-1 vote, redirecting those funds to hire more mental health therapists, a human services specialist, a mentoring partnership coordinator and an additional public health nurse.
The vote came despite a last-minute appeal by school board member Cindy Anderson, who told the city council that school resource officers ensure safety in the schools and the abrupt change would be disruptive for school staff following the difficult year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Within this decision lies an inherent assumption that we are able to meet the full depth of our security needs without the presence of highly trained and skilled law enforcement officers,” Anderson said. “These officers know every nook and cranny of the very large and overcrowded schools they serve.”
Council members who led the drive to end the SRO program in May defended their decision and insisted schools will be safe with the current deployment of unarmed security guards.
“By losing one police officer or two police officers, the school shouldn’t go into chaos. I understand that they have specific skills, then why are we spending a million dollars on security guards?” Council member Canek Aguirre, who supported eliminating the SRO program, said.
Removing school resource officers has been a major element within the call for police reform since the May 2020 death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson, who voted to remove the program, expressed disappointment that the city council and school board are at odds over the matter.
“I disagree with how we got here, I disagree with the decision but we’re in the business where majority rules and that’s where we’re at … I think if the majority of the council wishes to reallocate this money this is an appropriate way to do that,” Wilson said.
Council member Amy Jackson provided the lone vote against redirecting the money to mental health programs, pointing out that each Alexandria school currently has staff providing mental health support including social workers, school psychologists and school nurses.
“The process was bad … I also agree that the school board, as elected officials, we’re undermined in this process … that’s bullying,” Jackson said.
Following the vote, Wilson said he hopes relations can be repaired between the city council and the school board.
“I’m dismayed by where we’re at with our fellow elected body, the school board. I don’t think we’re in a good spot and we need to fix that,” Wilson said.