Virginia school safety panel sets broad mandate for work

By DAVE RESS Daily Press

April 26, 2018

The House of Delegates’ first Select Committee in 155 years got down to business with a briefing on Virginia’s extensive efforts to boost school safety — and a promise to look at school safety in the broadest possible way.

That includes looking at ways of preventing violence and addressing behavioral issues, as well as thinking about security measures — such as the unexpected new safety curtains installed in the glassed-in office that Speaker Kirk Cox found when he stopped by at the place where he used to teach.

“There’s more to school safety than higher walls and stronger locks,” Cox said, convening the Select Committee’s first meeting Thursday.

Cox said it was heartening to hear nearly 90 minutes of briefing on steps the state has taken in recent years.

They range from one of the nation’s most robust School Resource Officer programs and being the only state to require threat assessment teams in K-12 schools and colleges, to the longest-lived clearing house for school safety concerns and training at the Department of Criminal Justice Services.

But there’s more to do, he said.

Cox said addressing concerns expressed Thursday by, among others, Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, about bullying and the violence it can foreshadow will be part of the group’s task in the months ahead.

Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said enhancing safety means building trust.

During a recent tour of schools in South Hampton Roads — when he heard a lot about physical safety measures — Jones said he also heard about a social media post that promised something big was going to happen at a high school cafeteria.

It turned out to be an invitation to a prom. But it meant hours of anxiety for parents and school officials, he said. Making sure everybody feels safe and secure in school will be a big job, he added.

“We have a strong foundation we’ll be able to add to,” said vice chairman Danny Marshall, R-Pittsylvania County. “I was a little surprised at all that’s been done.”

And, he said, the public has lots of ideas and lots of worries. Marshall said he received more than 100 emails with suggestions about safety measures since the Select Committee’s formation last month.

The committee’s goal is to review state and local policies on school safety and make recommendations to the General Assembly for the 2019 session.

The committee will not discuss issues related to guns or broader behavioral health policy, Cox has said, because other General Assembly committees and commissions are looking at those issues.

Instead it will look at providing additional mental health resources for students and developing protocols for prevention of mental health crises at schools.

In addition, the committee will explore ways to harden school security systems.

It will also consider best practices for school security and at deploying additional security personnel.

Ress can be reached by telephone at 757-247-4535