From the campus of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the 21-member Select Committee on School Safety met to authorize the final report supporting 24 priority recommendations to be presented to the General Assembly for the 2019 Session to promote increased school safety in the wake of shootings on school grounds. These recommendations will work to bolster the safety of schoolchildren through threat prevention, counseling prioritization, increased mental health services, and increased training for school personnel, law enforcement, and security officers.
“When I formed the Select Committee on School Safety I promised that our final product would be comprehensive and consensus-driven,” said head of the committee Speaker of the House of Delegates Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), according to a press release.
“I am confident we have accomplished this goal,” he added.
The first select committee in the state legislature in 155 years had a mission to target the improvement of safety measures in the Commonwealth’s schools. Having been a teacher for three decades, Speaker Cox said it was “devastating” when he heard the news of what happened during the school shooting in February in Parkland, Florida, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The leader of the House of Delegates said the committee has been a “solutions oriented” bipartisan group that was “focused on putting the safety of students over politics.” Over the past few months, they have traveled and met collectively more than a dozen times in locations across the Commonwealth, received hundreds of comments from the public, and heard from many experts on the topic of increasing security at schools.
The report outlines five broad areas of improvement to be brought forth as legislation in the next year’s General Assembly session in Richmond.
Counseling and Mental Health:
An “enhanced” measure of training will be provided to school counselors, educational staff, law enforcement officers, and emergency personnel on the “climate” within a particular school through school climate surveys to be taken by students or students and staff. School safety training for students and staff will also be conducted statewide, which will adhere to the results of standardized data collection and reporting templates to be used by all threat assessment teams directed by the Center for School and Campus Safety.
School Resource Officers and School Security Officers:
The General Assembly will be tasked with providing state funding to the School Resource Officer (SRO) Grants Program to fund 44 new SRO positions, “which would reduce the current unfunded demand by half,” according to the House Select Committee’s “Priority Recommendations” report. All schools will be required to receive funding through the grants program “to enter into an MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] with local law enforcement that outlines the roles,” of the law enforcement officer or SRO. Moreover, the lawmakers recommend that the legislative body should vote to amend the Code of Virginia to allow retired law enforcement officers to be hired as SROs or School Security Officers without affecting their retirement benefits.
Leaning on the School Security Equipment Grant Act of 2013, legislators on Bank Street in Richmond would increase the amount of funding made available to the program for the purpose of purchasing security equipment at eligible schools. Furthermore, the General Assembly is recommending to require the inclusion of local school divisions in the public safety voice communications system to strengthen alert systems.
Campus and Infrastructure:
A change may come to future elections as one recommendation seeks to change the date of the primary elections held in June from the second Tuesday in June to the third Tuesday in June to ensure schools are no longer in session to mitigate safety concerns. Otherwise, thousands of individuals unaffiliated with the school on and in school property while students and faculty are in class could potentially pose a security problem. General elections held in November would coincide with a “student holiday/staff clerical day[s]” to promote safety, as well.
When it comes to the actual school building, the report outlines that all infrastructure must be compliant with all building and fire codes, with each individual school board around the Commonwealth collaborating with their local fire department to ensure continuity. Emergency response plans for use during a school crisis or mass evacuation will be reviewed on a closely-watched basis to ensure that students and staff have the ability to be put in a safe place during an emergency, meanwhile local law enforcement officers know who is in the building and where they are, and who or what may be a threat. The General Assembly will determine professionals who are trained and experienced in the Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) to review and implement much-needed school building projects that may include new construction and renovation projects.
Recommendations for Localities:
Other miscellaneous recommendations involving local areas throughout Virginia include “mutual aid agreements with other localities to provide emergency services,” and to increase collaboration among school division and “the various stakeholders in school safety audits and crisis management planning,” for example, school design, security planning, and public and private experts.
The priority recommendations are set to help the public and government officials address violence in schools using an array of techniques from realigning the role of school counselors, developing a statewide mental health and suicide prevention tip line application, increasing funding for SROs, increasing funding for school security grants, and creating a Commission on Student Mental Health to continue to study a number of important topics considered by the committee.
“I am grateful to the members of the Select Committee who have worked diligently to come up with proposals that will further ensure the safety of our students while in the classroom,” said Vice-Chairman of the Select Committee Danny Marshall (R-Danville).
“I look forward to working with my colleagues in the General Assembly to turn these priority recommendations into bills for the 2019 General Assembly Session,” he added.