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Discussion Commences on School Safety Recommendations

As the House Select Committee on School Safety continues to discuss recommendations for the 2019 Virginia General Assembly Session, legislators are making it clear in advance what they think the recommendations need to address. In a letter to Speaker Cox and the rest of the Committee, Delegates VanValkenburg, Mullin, and Bourne emphasized the need to create ‘communities of trust’ within schools while ensuring that minors do not have access to guns.

Mental health recommendations emphasized funding mental health counselors in the Standards of Quality equal to guidance counselors, lifting the support cap, providing more support to the recovery phase of crisis response team training and policy, and exploring ways to incorporate trauma-informed schooling. Physical safety recommendations sought to double the current physical infrastructure grant to $12 million and lower the local match requirement by 5 percent (eliminating match requirements for high risk divisions), increase the use of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) between school districts and law enforcement agencies, share data between the Department of Education and the Department of Criminal Justice Services, and create a risk warrant protective order for minors. School community recommendations include requiring review of mandatory referrals to law enforcement, and allowing for a local match waiver for Children’s Services Act funding for wraparound services. Lastly, gun recommendations would extend prohibition of minor possession of handguns to all firearms (excluding supervised use and guns as gifts and for sport), increase the penalty for improper storage of handguns and other weapons, and implement reporting standards for lost and stolen weapons.

During the July Committee meeting, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) briefed members on recommendations related to prevention, planning and personnel, and facilities. Though JLARC found no ‘single perfect approach,’ a combination of methods used across states guided their recommendations. Citing 2017 Virginia Safety Audit data that shows 80 percent of students felt ‘safe’ in schools, JLARC asserted that the Commonwealth has no significant safety shortcomings.

Prevention recommendations emphasized measuring school climate through threat assessments. Threat assessments have been conducted in the Commonwealth for almost six years. During the 2016-2017 school year, there were 9,238 threat assessments conducted across the state. Other recommendations highlighted the use of crisis response apps and tip lines, following models in Colorado, Ohio, and North Carolina. In addition, school safety plans and school safety and SRO coordination plans were also found across districts in many states. Council members discussed funding strategies for the school climate survey beyond 2020, standardizing vendor selection for apps, and consolidating all school safety data.

Recommendations aimed at planning and personnel emphasized the use of local law enforcement in safety plan development, and making plans accessible. In this section, JLARC also discussed the benefits of training and use of SROs and School Security Officers (SSOs). According to the audit, student perceptions of safety increased with SRO presence. In Virginia, the Commonwealth is above average on staffing, with 53 percent of public schools with SROs and 76 percent of secondary schools with SROs, above the national averages of 42 and 58 percent. Though funding for SROs mainly comes from local dollars, the new biennium budget increases the SRO grant (ITEM 395 F.1.) from $1.7 million each year to $3 million in the first year and $1.7 million in the second year. Language, also included in the original budget, allows for over $1.7 million each year to be deposited into the grant fund if available. The Committee discussed current state funding of SROs and ways to standardize the certification of safety plans.

Facility recommendations compared capital grants for school safety across states. For example, in Florida, divisions may apply for and have access to $99 million for one-time capital grants. In Virginia, divisions may apply for to up to $100,000. To date, a total of $6 million had been distributed since 2013.

The first round of recommendations will be shared at the next committee meeting on September 11 at 10 a.m. in the Pocahontas Building.

VACo Contact: Khaki LaRiviere

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