RICHMOND, Va. -This year, the General Assembly passed a law that would change training for School Resource Officers to help keep students safer in the classroom, and now it’s waiting for Governor Ralph Northam’s signature.
Sgt. John Kimenhour of Chesterfield County Police has been on the force for nearly 20 years, and has spent most of that time walking the halls of Thomas Dale High School as a School Resource Officer.
“My own kids graduated from this high school. So I’ve seen kids from when they were elementary school kids to going through this school, graduating, going to their graduation,” he explained. “You become part of the community.”
Sgt. Kimenour believes the relationship between a student and an SRO is crucial.
“When you respond to a road call, you respond for 20 minutes,” Sgt. Kimenhour said. “When you’re a school resource officer you see those kids everyday coming in and coming out of school.”
The current training provided by DCJS does include courses on adolescent brain development and how to help kids in crisis. Lawmakers and advocates wanted to make sure the legislation’s language specifically mentioned mental health crisis training. It currently doesn’t, but the training would include recommendations developed from the House Select Committee on School Safety as well as the Governor’s own school safety task force, which mentions these issues.
Sgt. Kimenour teachers basic training courses with the DCJS for officers who want to work in schools. He says he has noticed over the years that more kids need mental health services.
“When I first became an SRO, we very rarely had a mental health situation. Now, two three a week,” he said, “Partially because kids know more about mental health too and there’s not such a stigma when they can say that their friend is struggling.”
Once the governor signs off on the legislation, the newmandated course can be fully developed.
Other legislation developed out of the House Select Committee on School Safety requires school boards to create memorandums of understanding with local law enforcement agencies and SROs, to determine what their roles are. That bill is also waiting for the Governor’s signature.
Some lawmakers say more work still needs to done.
A member of the House Select Committee, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D – District 72), proposed a bill he says would have worked in conjunction with the other SRO legislation passed this year. It would have required school divisions to collect data on incidents of arrests, use of force and other disciplinary actions against students.
Del. VanValkenburg is also a teacher. He says “schools are safer when everyone is on the same page … and when the focus is on safety and not discipline.”
Several bills were introduced that would have limited criminal charges for students misbehaving. Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-District 9) pushed to remove a misdemeanor charge for disorderly conduct, for kids disrupting a class or a school-sponsored event.
Many cases, she says, could have been handled by the school disciplinary process and not the police.
“There was a special needs kid who couldn’t handle a schedule change so he kind of started flailing and got charged. A kid in Henrico who was singing a rap song on a bus,” she said.
When it comes to SROs, she says it’s important they are trained to work with children because they aren’t fully developed like “an adult on the street.”
“Sometimes a kid will act out because they’re triggered by a past trauma,” Sen. McClellan explained. “If law enforcement doesn’t understand that, then that could lead to misunderstandings that lead to these kids being charged when they really shouldn’t be.”
Sgt. Kimenhour says Chesterfield Police leaves it up to Chesterfield schools to handle disciplinary issues.
“Soccercoach, football coach, baseball coach – you have them follow the rules and do what they’re supposed to do but also when you know they need a confidant, you’re there,” Sgt. Kimenhour said. “I’ll talk to kids about whatever it is, something that’s going on at home.”
The final details of the mandated training will be ironed out if the governor signs the legislation. We’ll keep you updated on what happens from the Capitol.