During a three-year period, from the 2011 to the 2014 school years, more than 3,500 students in Chesterfield County Public Schools were arrested by county police in connection with incidents that occurred on school grounds.
Not all arrests resulted in charges or court hearings, but they did contribute to Virginia’s distinction as the state with the highest rate of student referrals to the criminal justice system in the country — a rate nearly three times the national average. The trend has disproportionately affected African-American and Hispanic students, as well as students with disabilities.
The figures, published in April by the Center for Public Integrity, renewed debate over zero tolerance policies that criminalize misbehavior, creating what critics call the school-to-prison pipeline. That debate is now changing the way some local school jurisdictions handle referrals.
In response to community concerns, the Henrico County Public Schools has undertaken a review of its memorandum of understanding with the Henrico Police Division, says spokesman Andy Jenks. That agreement was put in place in February 2013. As of the start of this school year, the revised agreement had not yet been not been finalized.
Henrico police last school year filed 369 complaints against 317 students.
“Moving forward, the lines are going to be more clearly defined that police officers are there to handle issues involving the code of Virginia, not necessarily involved in every disciplinary infraction,” Jenks says.
The Henrico police department in July revised its policy concerning juvenile arrests, says Lt. Christopher Eley. That revision makes clear that school resource officers should intervene only when criminal activity has occurred or at the officer’s discretion.
Shawn Smith, a spokesman for Chesterfield County Public Schools, says that its student code of conduct, including consequences for misbehavior, will not be revised, since the code is “in alignment with local and state laws.”
Still, starting in September, the county’s school resource officers will have more discretion in how they handle complaints filed against juveniles for minor offenses, says Elizabeth Caroon, a spokeswoman for Chesterfield’s police department.
Richmond Public Schools is tackling the issue on multiple fronts, including last year’s introduction of a new student ethics code, partnerships with prosecutors, juvenile courts, and with the police department to make sure “that we are truly only arresting students for serious criminal acts that simply cannot be tolerated in our schools or the greater community,” says Angela Jones, the district’s Director of Student Services.