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school safety

During the 2018 General Assembly session, on the heels of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) formed the first select committee in the state legislature in 155 years to target the improvement of safety measures in the Commonwealth’s schools. Having been a teacher for three decades, Cox said it was “devastating” when he heard the news of what happened in Florida.

“Having taught, how close you get to the teachers. How close you get to your students,” he remarked on, according to a report from WAVY.

Next Tuesday, the House Select Committee on School Safety will meet in Richmond for state lawmakers to discuss recommendations to promote the safety of school children and ensure that a situation like happened in Parkland does not occur in Virginia.

Currently, there are three subcommittees working to present approximately recommendations: School Infrastructure and Security, Student Behavior and Engagement, and Prevention and Response Protocol. Before the entire body of the legislature returns in 2019, some recommendations will be finalized, becoming bills during next year’s session.

Speaker Cox explained that one of the biggest topics is student wellness. He said that guidance counselors are commonly overworked, administering exams among other things additional to ensuring the well-being of students.

“We found out that depending on the school, that in some cases guidance counselors were spending about 20 percent of their time on direct student services,” he said. “[Let’s] make sure they’re spending about 80 percent of their time on direct student services. What’s so good about that is in some ways, you’re almost doubling the amount of counselors, if you look at it that way because they’re actually going to be doing so much more with direct student services.”

The measure to rectify this problem is for schools to hire additional teacher’s aides or staffers, freeing up time for guidance counselors to focus on students.

“Some of those positions are frankly aren’t nearly as expensive as a trained guidance counselor. So that’s probably the smarter approach,” he added.

Other recommendations are calling to increase the student-to-counselor ratio. In the 2017, the Annual Report on the Condition and Needs of Public Schools in Virginia laid out that the Board of Education would recommend requiring at least one counselor for every 250 students, one nurse for every 550 students, and one full-time social worker and psychologist for every 1,000 students.

Since 2008, the study showed that the number of students in Virginia schools has increased by 57,000. Meanwhile, numbers of support staff positions like the aforementioned have decreased by 2,300 during the same time.

Under the administration of then-Governor Tim Kaine, a budget cap was placed on support staff, as stated in the 2008-2010 state budget. That funding cap affected an estimated 13,000 school support positions, which was slated to save $340.9 million in salaries and benefits beginning in fiscal 2010, according to a report from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Now, however, state legislators are looking to lift the cap so that vital personnel are able to be hired to aid students.

“We’re going to need to spend some money, but we’re going to need to spend it prudently,” Speaker Cox said.

Other than additional staff, there are recommendations that are linked to new physical and technological security like school-specific tip hotlines, buzz-in systems to gain entrance in schools, and de-escalation measures from crisis assessment teams sent by the way of a “panic button,” which teachers, staff, and administration officials will have access to if a situation arises.

Hiring additional school resource officers (SROs) has been recommended by some as well. Although SROs would have to be streamlined through mandatory training in de-escalation tactics, Cox says there is a “loophole” that leads to a problem in hiring retired SROs-  they cannot be hired right now if they have reached retirement.

When it comes to the perennial issue about safety in schools – gun control – Cox said that was something he directed the House Select Committee on School Safety not to consider. He stated that gun control legislation would have “distracted” from other work.

Of course, this is spot on. House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said before the General Assembly adjourned in March that “school safety is a legitimate issue, it just can’t distract from what our primary goal is…and that is to get some reasonable common sense gun safety measures passed.”

“We’re going to have over 50 recommendations from all sides a lot of these recommendations come,” Cox said. “Once again, if guns would have been involved, I don’t think we would have gotten past guns.”

When the 2019 General Assembly comes into session this coming January, school safety will be at the top of the docket for introduced legislation. If the two-month session is anything like this year’s, a vast heap of gun control bills will undoubtedly be forwarded for consideration.