About a year ago, Spotsylvania County resident Bryn Pavek saw a startling headline. Virginia, she found, led the nation with the highest number of student referrals to police.
A recent retiree from Reston, Pavek had tried to resist getting involved in too many committees and organizations right away, but the headline moved her to action.
“I got ahold of the report and I was looking at it myself, because I know how sometimes people spin things,” Pavek said.
But the report really did show that more disciplinary actions are applied to students of color and students with disabilities than their share of the population, she said.
Pavek got involved with Virginia Organizing, a statewide grassroots organization, as the local chapter decided to pursue a change in Spotsylvania schools. Now, they feel their work is paying off, as the district has drafted a new memorandum of understanding with the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office that includes its feedback.
In particular, the new agreement is more detailed about school resource officer responsibilities, said Eunice Haigler, a leader with Virginia Organizing. It does more to make sure “day-to-day” discipline issues are handled by the school administration, she said, and places greater emphasis on the SRO role being restricted to safety and security.
The new draft is still being finalized and has not yet been approved by the School Board, according to schools spokeswoman René Daniels. Daniels said previously that the district already was treating improvements in discipline as a priority, but appreciates community feedback.
“What we found out was that MOU for the resource officers was one of the major problems,” Haigler said.
Haigler has had eight grandchildren in county schools. When the family asked that one of them not have contact with the SRO at school—preferring any disciplinary issues be handled by the school administration, not a police officer—Haigler said the officer told her that SROs don’t answer to principals.
“We looked for a job description and we couldn’t find one,” she said. “We needed a more clear-cut definition of their duties.”
Pavek and Haigler praised Superintendent Scott Baker and Sheriff Roger Harris for listening to Virginia Organizing.
“[Baker] was very open to working with us, he was very conscious of what the problem was,” Haigler said.
The district’s support was especially important, Haigler said, because local governments have a lot of control over local agreements.
State officials have promised that a model for MOUs between school systems and police, common around the state, is forthcoming, but even when the guidelines are released, changes are up to local governments.
After speaking with Virginia Education Secretary Dietra Trent at a recent Virginia Organizing meeting, Haigler said she is even more appreciative of the local support. She was also happy that the sheriff was interested in restorative justice, she said.
“What [restorative justice] does is it gives accountability to the person that commits the act, and it gives them a chance to say ‘I’m sorry’ and make restitution for what they did,” Haigler said. “It gives them accountability. … We’re really pleased that the sheriff’s department has gone that extra step to look into it.”
Restorative justice training for teachers is high on Pavek’s agenda, too, she said. She’s happy with the progress, but wants to see the schools keep up the momentum.
She wants to see regular data from the schools showing the discipline, suspension and expulsion rates for all students and for subgroups. And she hopes the district will pursue training in restorative justice and implicit bias for all staff, particularly teachers.
“I want to effect change. I’m not out to shame anybody,” Pavek said. “They’ve done an excellent job of listening, but I don’t want to lose the momentum.”