Virginia pursuing school policing reforms following Center probe

Potentially sweeping school police reforms are taking hold in Virginia, a state that was the focus of an investigation last April by the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal by The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

The investigation found, based on an analysis of data, that Virginia ranked first among states in the rate at which schools refer students to law enforcement agencies in connection with a variety of indiscretions. The Virginia rate was about three times the national rate.

Reaction to the story — including a state government initiative to reduce student arrests — is featured in the August episode of the public radio program Reveal, which will air on stations nationwide throughout the month.

“We are all eager to work together to find substantive solutions to reduce the number of students who are referred to the justice system,” Virginia Director of Juvenile Justice Andrew Block told the Center recently. Block is involved in a review that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe asked his so-called “children’s cabinet” members to conduct after the Center probe was published, along with a prior companion piece by Reveal.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, an advisory group for law enforcement, used the story and accompanying state-by-state data as part of a training session for brass from around the country this summer.

In Virginia’s Henrico County, near Richmond, Police Chief Douglas Middleton said he’s been concerned for several years that school officials have grown “dependent” on involving school resource officers — who are under his command — in what are essentially discipline violations.

In July, Middleton issued new department guidelines that are designed to limit police involvement in disciplinary issues and reduce unnecessary arrests that are frequently for disorderly conduct or assault. He’s also created a new 40-hour training requirement for school police and is making sure school officials get on board with new policies to limit requests for police intervention.

“We’ve had far too many parents complain about their children getting arrested and handcuffed,” Middleton said. He said school resource officers have gotten calls from staff at schools “about a student who won’t get on the bus,” or a student who is in the hallway standing around. “Well, that’s not a police matter,” Middleton said.

He said he wanted to get back to the 1970s and 1980s, “when you didn’t lock up every kid for doing something immature.”

He’s also aiming to reduce juvenile arrests generally and “divert” more kids to counseling without a formal arrest.

Pressed for a response to the Center’s findings, Henrico Commonwealth Attorney Shannon Taylor—the county’s top prosecutor—also called for “smarter” reactions to school discipline problems.

Middleton said he’s been invited by the Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety to speak to the state task force convened by McAuliffe to respond to the Center’s findings. .

Related: The Center on Reveal

There’s more to this story. Click here to read the rest at the Center for Public Integrity.

This story is part of Juvenile Justice. Scrutinizing controversial policies affecting young people at risk. Click here to read more stories in this investigation.

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Copyright 2015 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.