Last week, two Republican state lawmakers took a tour of three Washington County Schools in Southwest Virginia as a part of a General Assembly-sponsored study on school safety measures following recent national tragedies involving firearms. Delegates Todd Pillion (R-Abingdon) and Israel O’Quinn (R-Bristol) went to Abingdon High, E.B. Stanley Middle, and Greendale Elementary as a part of the greater mission of keeping Virginians and their children safe in schools.
“I see kids every day, and their safety is No. 1,” said Pillion, who currently has four children enrolled in the Washington County school system, according to the Bristol Herald-Courier.
As he has been touring schools across Southwest Virginia, O’Quinn, who was recently appointed to the Virginia House of Delegates Select Committee on School Safety, recently toured Tennessee High School in Bristol, Tennessee, to observe the safety procedures that have been put in place across the state line.
“Obviously, this [safety] is a huge issue that is on the forefront of everyone’s mind right now,” O’Quinn said.
The Select Committee on School Safety is staffed with 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats that are currently gathering information regarding school safety that will be taken back to the first meeting set to be held April 26.
The goal for the select committee is to, “come up with a framework that will work for every locality in Virginia that can be tailored to your [each school’s] needs,” and have it ready for the 2019 General Assembly session, O’Quinn explained in the report.
“It’s a lot of work, [and] it is an intensive effort. … We are trying to do our due diligence here,” O’Quinn said.
During the tour in Southwest Virginia, delegates O’Quinn and Pillion spoke with School Superintendent Brian Ratliff, Schools Director of Human Resources and Operations Chad Wallace, Washington County Sheriff Fred Newman, and Abingdon High resource officer Scott Debusk.
At the meeting at Abingdon High School, Ratliff explained that a “common-sense approach” needs to be made in addressing school safety because “there are so many variables.”
At faculty meetings at Abingdon High, county administrators, teachers, and staff cover one aspect of the school district’s crisis manual, emergency response plan, annual school audit, and the threat assessment review. The threat assessment entails the guidelines by which a potential threat is reviewed and managed, determining if a situation is serious enough to call in local law enforcement authorities for support.
As a relatively new school resource officer, Debusk explained that building relationships with students is one of the most important factors in promoting better school security. Debusk said that he arrives at the high school every day at 7:20 a.m. and makes his final rounds of the school at 3:30, ensuring, “no one is where they shouldn’t be.”
“Building relationships with the kids…is probably the most important thing next to security,” Debusk said. “It’s where most of our information comes from.”
Sheriff Newman said he believes that law enforcement officers who have personalities that work well with students should be placed in the schools to bolster a safe, community-like atmosphere.
“If they interact well with the kids, the kids are more likely to go to that officer with information,” he explained.
For the remainder of 2018, Sheriff Newman wishes to prioritize Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) officers being placed in each county school. As of now, nine school resource officers, including DARE officers, are staffed in the Washington County schools and at Highlands Community Services in Abingdon. Furthermore, the Abingdon Police Department provides E.B. Stanley Middle School and Abingdon High School with one additional resource officer each.
Reportedly, the Sheriff’s Office is asking the county for two more school resource officers in the 2018-19 fiscal budget and four more from the Washington County School Board.
A novel safety measure now used in Washington County that is gaining traction in Southwest Virginia is a smartphone application dubbed “SchoolGuard,” used to notify faculty members and local emergency services of a potential dangerous situation. In the event of a shooter or different emergency within the school, a teacher or staff member can press either “911Only” or “Teacher Assist,” connecting the respondent with emergency services and notifying other faculty and staff with the initial alert and a location.
The “Teacher Assist” option is limited to alerts on schools grounds, while the “911Only” feature is sent to the phones of all federal, state, and local law enforcement officers within a 25-mile radius of the school.
Ratliff said that having O’Quinn in Pillion visit schools on Friday shows that, “they are paying attention to us, our needs and the current climate across the country, but it shows how much they really care about our specific communities,” he said.