FUEGO's Response to DRN Article on SRO Presentation

The June 18 article published in the DNR titled “HPD Plans Talk with SRO Task Force” reflects how far our government institutions need to go to address historic harms, achieve racial justice and abolish mass incarceration. It also reflects the work ahead to dismantle systemic racism and anti-blackness.

Ahead of a SRO presentation scheduled for today Wednesday, June 23, at 6pm, at Skyline Middle School, HPD disclosed part of the content of the presentation to the DNR. The reference to an incident that took place in 2012 is a rather poor justification for the SRO program.  It is a single incident, involving two children and was not on school grounds, further proving its irrelevance to the SRO program. The police are pointing to two black and brown students to represent all Black and Brown students, which is both racist and illogical.  It is reminiscent of the historical excuses used to target Black and Brown people for violence.  Inflammatory incidents like this one have been used to dehumanize (essentially animalize) people of color by attributing the alleged conduct from one to many.  The police are doing the same here, to children, to justify their program.  They also are using this particular incident, a rather inflammatory one, to distract the task force from more meaningful data, analysis, and further understanding of the program.

The article also included quotes from the Liaison for the Harrisonburg’s Police Department’s Restorative Justice Program, which seemed to advocate for children to be incarcerated and treated as adults. In our understanding, it is well accepted in the scientific community that children are children for a long time.  Their brains do not finish developing until approximately the age of 25, a fact that has caused many states to consider raising the juvenile court age limit to 18 and beyond. For a restorative justice practitioner to imply that children need to be tried in the Criminal Legal System in “proper fashion” is a blow to the local Restorative Justice efforts in and outside schools.

As a member of the task force, FUEGO provided two recommendations to task force facilitators and school officials in light of the publication of the DNR article. A) Revise the HPD presentation in order to make sure that the presentation is purely informational, and to make sure racist tropes are not included in the presentation that further stigmatizes black and brown children. B) If revision is not possible, postpone the presentation while the task force revises this information and discusses its content. We also believe HPD owes an apology to the general public for the publication and content included in the article. 

In addition, we believe school officials, school board members, and city council members should address the content of the article because the damage and stigmatization is already done. The article was sent to all the DNR subscribers, and it's important we use this incident to educate ourselves and the general public. 

Task force coordinators indicated that they were able to review the content of the presentation and that they were moving forward with the event schedule at 6pm. Nonetheless, it is unclear whether HPD’s presentation still includes the same elements described in Friday's DNR’s article or if it has additional problematic elements. 

FUEGO would like to take the opportunity to shed light on two ideas that are clashing when we discuss police presence in public schools. On the one hand, supporters of having police present in schools see the school-based police officers as a program that offers protection, and that police officers need to be role models for students in order to improve their relationship with the community and make all students feel safe. FUEGO believes that having school-based police officers is a harmful program that contributes to youth criminalization, arrest, and disproportionately affects black and brown children. This has been proven in multiple studies, and even Dr. Richards, Harrisonburg Schools Superintendent, has indicated that black and latino students in our school district are disproportionately referred to law enforcement. When police are in schools, staff and administrators rely more on police to condition students' behaviour with the threat of arrest.    

We all care about the well-being of all students and have listed many alternatives to having school-based police officers in the past. We have spoken about the need for having School De-escalators, increasing our funding for social workers, psychologists, behaviour specialists, nurses, plus continuing the implementation of restorative practices that empower teachers and staff with tools to de-escalate situations without the threat of arrest. The work ahead is complex and it requires that we not only recognize where systemic racism is present and how it manifests, but also that we act accordingly. For additional resources, please check https://www.endzerotolerance.org/