How to Make Schools Safer? 

Start with more counselors and training, lawmakers told.

click to enlarge Ta’Quan Grant, a Thomas Jefferson High School senior and School Board candidate, marches during a gun violence protest in April.

Scott Elmquist/file

Ta’Quan Grant, a Thomas Jefferson High School senior and School Board candidate, marches during a gun violence protest in April.

Though seen by many as a national model, Virginia's school safety plans have room for improvement, legislators were told July 11 during meeting of a House select committee on school safety at Meadowbrook High School.

More mental health counselors, better threat assessments and increased collaboration with law enforcement are practices in other states that Virginia could learn from, staff from the legislature's research body told the House of Delegates' select committee on school safety, which was formed after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in February.

No state has found a single perfect approach, said Justin Brown, a senior associate director with the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.

"What it really comes down to … is using a combination of approaches," Brown said.

The committee — chaired by House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights — plans to make recommendations by December that could be taken up by the General Assembly in 2019.

Members of the select committee are studying infrastructure and security, student behavior and intervention, and prevention and response. Democrats and statewide associations for teachers, counselors and school nurses have criticized the 22-member panel for excluding gun control. Cox reiterated Wednesday his position that broadening the scope to look at guns wouldn't be productive.

"Once we go there, that's all we'll discuss," he said.

Wednesday's report stuck to the areas Cox has tasked the committee with reviewing, namely prevention, personnel and facilities.

In school climate surveys in 2017, 80 percent of Virginia students said they feel safe in their schools, researcher Erik Beecroft said. About a third reported being physically attacked, pushed or hit while at school, however.

Virginia is the only state to require threat assessment teams at every school. Threat assessments are the most-recommended way of preventing violent attacks, but they're only as good as the training given to staff carrying them out, Beecroft said.

He added that some researchers believe threat assessments are not the best way to help students at risk of harming themselves, which made up about half of the 9,238 threat assessments conducted in Virginia schools in 2016-17.

Mental health counselors are proven to improve school safety, Brown said. But a recession-era cap on state funding for such support positions means school counselors have higher caseloads than recommended by professional associations.

Three Democrats on the select committee, including Newport News Delegate Mike Mullin, have proposed hiring more support staff. Mullin said he toured Woodside High School in Newport News earlier this year and more students asked for mental health support than for physical safety measures.

"We are overworking our school counselors," Mullin said.

Republicans seemed wary of eliminating the cap, which was implemented in 2010 while Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine was governor. Cox said he'd be open to excluding specific positions dealing with mental health. Delegate Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said he'd like to see a carve-out for behavioral specialists, something he said superintendents in his district have told him is a need.

Mullin said removing even some positions from the cap would be a "significant step in the right direction." To be truly effective, he said, the committee must look at mental health and issues "beyond hardening doors and bulletproof windows." Mullin said he was heartened there seems to be bipartisan support for that.

Knight said he'd also like to see an exemption to make it easier for retired police officers to serve as school resource officers. Currently, retired police who draw from the state's retirement system are barred from working more than 20 hours a week.

The researchers' other recommendations included a smartphone app that could handle anonymous tips about school safety threats, more training for school resource officers, random safety audits of schools, closer review of existing safety plans and more guidance on how schools should conduct response drills.

The committee will need to prioritize the strategies that can have the greatest impact, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said.

"We need to be smart in how we invest," he said. S


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