Alexandria Police Department school resource officers walk through a hallway at T.C. Williams High School.
Alexandria Police Department school resource officers walk through T.C. Williams High School in June 2021. The City Council voted in 2021 to pull funding for school resource officers and then reversed itself five months later. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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In 2020, Virginia passed a law that allowed principals to decide when to alert police if students committed a possible misdemeanor.

Organizations that work on juvenile justice issues championed the change, hoping it would slow the state’s school-to-prison pipeline after a 2015 Public Integrity investigation revealed that students in Virginia were referred to law enforcement at nearly three times the national rate.

This week, lawmakers rolled the law back. 

Critics of the move fear the change will have severe consequences for the state’s Black and Latino students and children with disabilities, who, as Public Integrity’s analysis revealed, are already more likely to be referred to law enforcement than their peers.

The old law drove up referrals because many school administrators thought it required them to report any potential crime and even minor incidents. The new legislation, which will again mandate that schools report to police incidents such as alcohol and drug offenses and fights, is expected to be signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican. 

During his campaign, Youngkin made repealing the 2020 law a legislative priority. He seized on public concern about two in-school sexual assault cases as proof that the law was flawed. And some lawmakers suggested that the law made it easier to cover up the assaults, even though, as potential felony crimes, the incidents already fell under the state’s mandatory reporting requirements.

Advocacy organizations such as the Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center would prefer that school administrators continue to have discretion in reporting potential misdemeanor crimes. With the law’s passage, law enforcement could be involved more often in cases that a student code of conduct could address.

“They’re sweeping kids up because these communities of students are over-surveilled and over-policed and perceived in ways that shuttle them into the court system,” said Amy Woolard, director of policy at the Legal Aid Justice Center. “We have to reckon with that.”

The federal government’s definition of “referrals to law enforcement” includes all contact students have with officers, including arrests, citations, tickets and court referrals, that could negatively affect the students. Research shows that those youth are more likely to be pushed into the juvenile justice system.

After a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in 2020, school systems across the nation reexamined their relationships with law enforcement. Some districts, including several in Virginia, canceled their contracts for police services and instead spent the money on student support services.

“I saw conversations about school resource officers opening up in ways that we have not seen in the past, driven by communities and driven by students,” Woolard said. “Any time you have a loud, thoughtful, emphatic new approach to a conversation, there’s going to be pushback as well.”

That’s what is happening in Virginia, where the legislative push for mandatory reporting of potential crimes is part of a coordinated effort to tap into parent concerns over school safety.

Youngkin also wants a school resource officer in every school in the state. Lawmakers in the Republican-majority state House passed legislation this month that would require the change, but a companion bill has stalled in the Democratic-led Senate.

While research shows that the presence of school resource officers can reduce some forms of violence, their presence comes with trade-offs: more suspensions, expulsions, police referrals and arrests that disproportionately affect Black students.

Public Integrity’s 2021 analysis of the latest data available, the 2017-18 school year, found Virginia’s schools were still collectively reporting students to law enforcement at three times the national rate and more than any other state.

In this case, “being No. 1 is not something to be prized,” Woolard said.

Youngkin’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

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Corey Mitchell is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. He writes about racial, gender...