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Police staffing shortage leads Arlington high schools to limit attendance at games

Washington-Liberty High School football game versus Chantilly High School on Sept. 9, 2022 (via YouTube)

(Updated 09/27/22) High school football season is in play, but this year, fewer students in Arlington Public Schools will be in the stands cheering on their friends.

That is because Arlington County Police Department does not have enough officers to staff events, police spokeswoman Ashley Savage tells ARLnow.

Only students who attend the competing schools will be able to sit in the stands this year, according to one parent’s recap of a recent meeting between the Washington-Liberty Parent-Teacher Association and school leaders, which was posted to a Facebook page for parents and shared with ARLnow.

Siblings who attend other schools can attend if they come with their families, the post said. Students of the Arlington Career Center and H-B Woodlawn and those in Virtual Virginia courses can attend the games of their home schools.

This policy applies to all athletic events, not just football, the parent wrote.

Last fall, ACPD advised APS that it would not be able to provide physical security at games and special events for the 2022-23 school year due to ongoing staffing concerns, Savage said. (The police department also announced earlier this year that it would be scaling back some services due to the thinning of its ranks.)

“ACPD continues to work with APS on a plan to ensure a safe school community,” she said. “These security plans are similar to procedures APS implemented when the school board voted 5-0 to remove School Resources Officers.”

School Board members previously said they removed officers in response to arrest statistics indicating Black and Latino kids are disproportionately charged with crimes.

Despite not being in the schools daily, Savage said department participates in the school system’s Threat Assessment Team and School Safety Audit, has a liaison to APS and remains in contact with school leadership on any public safety concerns they may have.

“The decision to revise our admission procedures for high school athletic events is based on our commitment to providing safe, secure environments for students, staff and spectators, as well as to support the school staff who are charged with managing the crowds and maintaining safety and security during these events,” APS spokesman Frank Bellavia told ARLnow on Tuesday. “This has been our previous practice and is not directly related to the absence of police officers at our games.”

But some parents were surprised by the policy change, saying they only learned of it two weeks ago, ahead of the Washington-Liberty High School football game against Chantilly High School on Sept. 9.

The change has already prompted a parent to launch a petition calling for the decision to be reversed. The petition has just over 175 signatures as of publication time and the author, W-L Boosters Club Co-President Kevin Hughes, asked members of the School Board last week at their meeting to drop the policy.

“This is a small community. Many high school students attended elementary and middle school together and remain friends even though they are enrolled in different high schools,” he said in the petition. “By virtue of being an Arlington resident, all high school students should be afforded the opportunity to watch live football games in person regardless of what school they attend.”

Hughes said that most incidents occur after the game concludes, and could be mitigated “proper crowd dispersal procedures.”

APS has had its share of incidents surrounding football games. Police had to use pepper spray to break up a fight during a W-L game in 2016, Wakefield football players allegedly were the target of racial slurs in Fairfax County and some Yorktown students allegedly were sexually harassed during half-time at a game. APS noted last school year that fights were on the rise, particularly among middle-schoolers, as students reacclimated to in-person education.

And Arlington is not alone in taking steps to tighten security at athletic contests.

After a football game ended in a brawl and charges against five people, Montgomery County Public Schools now requires fans to stay in their seats and limits fans to students from the competing schools.

Some parents have expressed mixed feelings about the new APS policy, acknowledging its likely necessity while critiquing its implementation.

“At the end of the day, of course everyone I would rather have this policy — if absolutely necessary — than have them going to restricted attendance or no students at certain games,” said W-L parent Mark Weiser. “There are a lot of questions and not a lot of answers and what irks me is that the policy was thrown out there without a lot of discussion.”

This story has been updated to include comment from Arlington Public Schools. 

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