Good morning, Chairperson Pinto and members of the Committee. My name is Anne Herr and I am the Senior Director of School Support at the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates on behalf of public charter schools to ensure that every student can choose high-quality public schools that prepare them for lifelong success.
To begin, I want to highlight some of the challenges charter schools face as they work to create safe learning environments for their students. While we appreciate the city and MPD shining a light on public safety, our leaders have reported a number of concerning situations as they work to keep their school communities safe.
Communication with schools about violent incidents in the neighborhoods surrounding their buildings is varied and inconsistent. Recently, one charter school reported a situation where MPD notified them of a nearby shooting, causing them to initiate lockdown procedures. After the initial call, the school wasn’t able to get in touch with MPD about whether the threat had subsided. They were forced to hold students well after dismissal. Even more troubling is the exact opposite problem: schools dismissing students into an active crime scene because MPD never notified them of a nearby shooting. This situation has happened more than once to multiple schools, this school year alone.
But problems go beyond inconsistent communication. Currently, elementary schools do not have access to a School Resource Officer. When SROs were eliminated from these schools, schools did not receive any alternative resources that might fill that gap. What that means in practice is that when an incident occurs in or near their buildings, school leaders have no choice but to call 911, and responding officers have little or no training in dealing with children or school settings.
To address these concerns our school leaders have raised, I’m here today to offer solutions the Council and MPD can make to improve safety for students and staff both inside and outside the school building: (1) Freeze the SRO wind-down and improve the School Resource Officers (SRO) Program while convening a task force to explore alternative approaches, as Councilmember Parker has suggested (2) Improve MPD response with better school communication and student-focused training, and (3) provide more resources for the Safe Passage Program so that all Priority Area schools have access to this support.
Freeze SRO Wind Down and Convene a School Safety Task Force
We appreciate Councilmember Zachary Parker for introducing the School Safety Enhancement Act of 2023 and Councilmember Trayon White for introducing the Safe Schools and Students Amendment Act of 2023. While these bills take different approaches, we are grateful that the Council is seeking solutions and laying out paths forward on school safety issues. We believe elements of both bills have merit. While our schools have some reservations about the SRO program and share concerns about the problem of overpolicing, eliminating SROs without identifying additional safety resources or services, in a situation of escalating community violence often involving youth, has made the situation worse. We are encouraged by alternative suggestions such as those in Councilmember Parker’s legislation. We look forward to engaging with the Council and other stakeholders to make sure we get our students and school staff the critical safety supports they need.
We recommend freezing the SRO wind down while also pursuing additional safety staff and an OSSE led school safety task force as recommended by Councilmember Parker. Currently SROs are vital in sharing timely information with administrators about safety issues in our neighborhoods that may affect or spill over into school buildings, and they can provide a direct link to MPD when an incident occurs. But we believe there’s room to improve the program, and we urge MPD to engage with charter schools to do so going forward. For example, MPD should collaborate with charter schools to develop SRO training highlighting the differences in procedures they might encounter from LEA to LEA. Currently, SRO training is designed and conducted exclusively by DC Public Schools. And we applaud the limits the Council placed on SROs’ ability to issue warrants and arrest students in school.
Enhance MPD Response with Better School Communication and Student-Focused Training
Next, our schools recommend several steps to enhance MPD response, both when it becomes necessary to call and when a situation occurs near school buildings that leaders need to be aware of. To start, we recommend MPD better track data on response times to schools to help inform staffing decisions and fill gaps where needed.
Second, schools had hoped that weekly public safety priority area calls would provide them with a dedicated space to receive regular updates from and communicate with MPD and Safe Passage Program workers. Right now that’s not happening. MPD is only sending one (sometimes two) officers to rotate through all eight priority area calls, which are scheduled simultaneously. While the brief connections some schools have made with the rotating officer have been helpful, call participants (including the MPD officer) spend most of this hour sitting in a waiting room wondering if someone will attend.
And, as we raised at the MPD performance oversight hearing, it’s important that when officers respond to schools, their approach is student-centered. All officers, not just SROs, should receive student-focused training that emphasizes racial equity, child development, trauma response, and de-escalation strategies.
Provide More Resources for Safe Passage Program
Finally, we recommend the Council and Administration ensure the Safe Passage Program has the resources necessary for the program to be effective. Without the appropriate funding to fully staff the program, many public schools do not have access to Safe Passage support despite being located in a Priority Area. We urge the Administration to ensure every public school within a Priority Area has access to Safe Passage support and encourage stronger oversight of the program to make sure that all schools are receiving the same level of service. We also recommend that when the city is identifying Safe Passage priority schools, it reviews incident data from charter schools and not just from DCPS.
We look forward to continuing our work together to make sure that every student has what they need to be successful, and that starts with ensuring that their school communities are safe.
Thank you for your time and attention, and I welcome your questions.