WINCHESTER — Prom night of 1997 was the first time then-Handley High School senior Carl Rush ever got pulled over by a police officer.
Rush, who is Black, was nervous as the white officer approached his car. Then he recognized it was Officer Craig Smith, who was Handley’s school resource officer at the time. The now-retired Smith had stopped Rush to let him know he had a headlight out, and the two had a cordial conversation because they knew one another.
“That interaction shaped my view on police interactions,” said Rush, now Winchester Public Schools’ equity and community engagement coordinator. “The value of having an officer in the school system, or having exposure to officers in the school system, is invaluable.”
Rush told the story during a Tuesday meeting hosted by the police department and Winchester NAACP chapter 7127 regarding the role of police in Winchester Public Schools. The meeting, attended by about 25 people, was the first in a series designed to educate the public about policing and allow residents to give feedback to police.
While some localities have police assigned to all or most schools, in Winchester they are stationed at Daniel Morgan Middle School and Handley. Ray Rice, a police officer since 2017, has been Daniel Morgan’s school resource officer since last year and Officer Sisredo Sosa, hired in 2018, begins at Handley in August.
They are among up to 20,000 SROs assigned to at least 42% of the nation’s approximately 98,000 schools, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers. The estimate is based on Department of Education and Department of Justice statistics.
Between 11 and 75 school shootings occurred annually between 2000 and last year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which is part of the DOE. While only about 0.02% of schools are affected annually, high-profile shootings like the massacres at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1998 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012 have increased police presence in schools. Proponents say officers provide safety and build rapport with students, but opponents say they criminalize adolescent behavior, with minority students disproportionately affected.
Rice, however, said he is rarely involved in disciplinary matters at the middle school, where there were just seven fights in the last school year, according to police. There were nine fights at Handley. If there is fight between students, Rice said charges are only filed if requested by a parent. If a student assaults a school employee, arrests are only made if the staff member requests it.
Rice said his days are filled walking the school grounds, building relationships with students. “That rapport I build now will help me with that student later on if they are in a crisis.”
When Chief John R. Piper was hired in 2017, he had SROs switch from wearing polo shirts and khaki pants to their patrol uniforms. Besides preventing the possibility of an SRO in plainclothes being mistakenly shot by police in a school shooting, the switch was designed to make children more comfortable with the uniform. For children who may have had police show up at their home to respond to violence or make an arrest, they may have associated the uniform with traumatic experiences.
School officials at the meeting said staff and SROs take into account that bad behavior from a child may be due to a crisis. A student sleeping in class may be because their parents were evicted from their home. Or a child may be unruly due to trauma involving drug use or domestic violence in their home.
Piper said Rice’s interactions with students are an example that Winchester police are not disciplining minority students based on racial profiling, a practice known as the “schools-to-prisons pipeline.”
“You’ll see him walking down the hallway and he’ll have kids all over his arms. He’s revered over there,” Piper said. “It’s a credit to what the program should be and can be.”
But Guss Morrison, first vice president of the local NAACP chapter, questioned the efficacy of stationing police in Winchester schools, noting the low amount of violence there compared to schools in large cities. He mentioned that roughly $1.1 million is spent annually for SROs in Winchester and the counties of Frederick and Clarke and wonders if the money might be better spent on increasing school staff to assist at-risk students.
In Winchester Public Schools, there are about 13 counselors for the district’s approximately 4,155 students. That works out to 319 students per counselor.
“Additional staff would be more beneficial and be more of a positive influence and more effectively minimize the extent to which our kids become affiliated with the juvenile justice system,” Morrison said. “This schools-to-jail issue is a serious issue for our Black males.”
Besides SROs, the local juvenile justice system was discussed. Michelle Miller, a Winchester assistant commonwealth’s attorney who works in Frederick/Winchester Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, said the court prioritizes rehabilitation rather than punishment. For nonviolent offenses, juvenile offenders are typically put in diversionary programs rather than being prosecuted.
When those programs fail, Miller said offenders are usually put on probation and provided with services such as drug or mental health treatment or family counseling. While felony convictions remain on a juvenile’s record, misdemeanors are expunged when they turn 19 or after five years of no charges after the conviction, whichever comes first.
Miller, who spent five years as an assistant public defender before becoming an assistant prosecutor in 2019, noted the brain isn’t fully developed until a person is 25 years old. She said problems that land children in the court are often due to impulsive behavior due to their age.
“We are always keeping that in the forefront of our minds when we’re deciding what to do with a specific charge,” Miller said. ‘We’re often amending charges down or dismissing them altogether. It’s been very, very rare during my seven years of working in this court that I’ve actually seen a person below the age of 18 convicted of a felony.”