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Each year, the committee mark-up portion of the D.C. Council’s budget review process becomes a test of council members’ alignment with the mayor on certain issues.
It’s no different this year, especially when it comes to whether to stop the gradual removal of school resource officers (SROs).
The D.C. Council’s Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary, led by Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), recently expressed support for a portion of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal that keeps SROs in city schools.
In its unanimously approved committee report, the D.C. Council Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary cited feedback received from administrators, teachers and students about on-campus altercations and its dismal effects on student wellbeing and attendance. The report went on to say that, given the polarizing nature of the SRO debate, the D.C. Council circumvented public opinion when it initially approved the gradual removal of SROs in 2021.
“The council decision on this issue in 2021 was a part of a nationwide trend in which a number of other jurisdictions made similar decisions at that time,” page 115 of the report read. “But many of those jurisdictions… are also now reconsidering the phaseout of SROs in schools. Those reversals reflect the reality that all policymaking involves tradeoffs [that] merit close examination and a thorough public conversation, and the council should engage in that examination and conversation.”
During the 2021-2022 school year, there were more than 1,000 calls made for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) for D.C. public schools, according to the committee report. The report also cited the recovery of 77 knives, 15 Tasers and five guns by SROs and MPD officers on school campuses within the same time span. The D.C. Council Committee of Public Safety and the Judiciary recommended that SROs be reinstalled to immediately mitigate conflict while schools figure out how to meet students’ long-term behavioral health needs.
Weeks earlier, Council member Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5) proposed legislation that, in lieu of SROs, would install a safety director for each District school and mandate the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to facilitate the creation of guidelines used to review school safety plans.
This legislation, Parker told the Informer, came out of public frustration with the lack of school safety enhancements in Bowser’s budget proposal.
Over the past several months, school principals have testified before the D.C. Council in support of reinstating SRO, telling council members that SROs often have a pulse on conflicts brewing between students. There has also been some consensus among some principals that the D.C. Council, in approving the drawback in SROs, didn’t have a nuanced understanding of how SROs functioned in schools.
However, grassroots organizers, including those affiliated with the Black Swan Academy, have long touted the need for a public health approach to on-campus and intra-community violence that doesn’t involve police. They have stood on the frontlines against SROs, pointing out other means of quelling student conflict.
According to D.C. Policy Center, nearly 80% of District residents lived within half a mile of a homicide — more than likely in places where children live — in 2021. A study conducted by the think tank in March found that young people in D.C. 17 years old and younger are more likely than their counterparts in other parts of the country to be exposed to violence. The numbers are nearly twice as high when household income is below the federal poverty line.
That’s why during the last week of April every year, some gun violence prevention organizations use Youth Violence Prevention Week to drive home the point that gun violence is not only a matter of safety and justice, but a public health issue that should be addressed as such.
Tia Bell, founder and executive director of True Reasons I Grabbed the Gun Evolved from Risks Project, also known as T.R.I.G.G.E.R. Project, said that she’s been able to engage, gain the trust of, and educate young people who’ve been exposed to gun violence, but have yet to become perpetrators or victims of gun-related crimes.
She expressed plans to continue along this journey between April 24 and 28, during which T.R.I.G.G.E.R. Project, a gun violence prevention organization focused on public health and youth development, will conduct activities at District schools and facilitate a social media campaign anticipated to reach thousands of young people.
Local activities include an assembly at SEED Public Charter School, a virtual planning session for the 2023 End Gun Violence Citywide Conference, TRIGGER BINGO on Instagram Live, an assembly at Alice Deal Middle School in Northwest, and the collective wearing of orange for gun violence awareness.
For this endeavor, T.R.I.G.G.E.R. Project has partnered with the University of Michigan (UM)’s Youth Violence Prevention Center. Through that arrangement, researchers from UM will document T.R.I.G.G.E.R. Project’s methods of raising awareness about gun violence.
“In this climate of youth demise and crime, it’s difficult to find hope and compassion [unless] you look at gun violence as a disease and [tackle] how to treat it,” Bell said. “We aim to start prevention [by] getting to the youth that have yet to pull the trigger but are prone to do it. A lot of young people go hard without using guns to solve their problems. I get to work with them, but they’re invisible to decision-makers. This week is about them.”
Focusing on student (AND teacher) mental health is an important long-term strategy that needs to be fully addressed and funded, but the reality right now is there is violence in schools and both students and teachers are victims of violence in schools. It contributes to lower student attendance and teacher turnover. They won’t show up if they feel threatened, period. SROs are there to build relationships with schools and support, prevent, and respond to violence. They’re needed back in schools.
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