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School Safety in Virginia Part 2. Virginia’s policies, methods, and protocols

School safety measures and the policy debates surrounding this issue have long been a part of our national conversation. In fact, American society has been widely concerned with protecting children from school-based violence for at least three decades now. High-profile tragedies, and the resulting desperate search for a universal remedy sometimes lead us to overlook all that has been done so far. Yet, we must keep previous and current efforts and their level of effectiveness in mind if we are to successfully reform and enhance  school safety policies and procedures.

Keeping this thought in mind, today we’ll explore Virginia’s current school safety policies, methods, and protocols to paint a clear picture of the status quo.  Our goal is to provide a digestible overview of school safety initiatives in Virginia while also sharing resources for readers interested in a deeper dive. This information will come in handy farther down the road when we look at proposed policy changes.

School Safety in the Commonwealth
The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) recently studied Virginia’s school safety efforts and found that a “Comparison of Virginia to other states did not reveal any significant shortcomings in Virginia.” In sharing this news, the report also provided a detailed look at school safety policy in the Commonwealth. According to the JLARC study, approaches generally fall into three major categories: 1) Prevention, 2) Planning and Personnel, and 3) Facilities and Testing. We’ll make use of JLARC’s methodology and keep their categories throughout the rest of our overview.

Prevention: Virginia’s prevention methods take the form of annual climate surveys and threat assessments.

1) For the last five years, Virginia  has studied school climate to understand the environment within its public schools and to appreciate the impact of climate on school safety. Along with the University of Virginia (UVA) and the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services  (DCJS), the Virginia Department of Education conducts annual school climate surveys in several grades. For a more detailed look, check out this report about a recent middle school climate survey.

2) In 2013, Virginia required that all public schools establish Threat Assessment Teams. Well-conducted assessments investigate threats of violence and work to address underlying issues or conditions surrounding the relevant individual. UVA Professor, Dewey Cornell, provides more insight into threat assessment best practices in his report, “Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines.” DCJS has also created guidelines for schools through its document, “Threat Assessment in Virginia Public Schools: Model Policies, Procedures, and Guidelines.” JLARC’s study mentions that threat assessments may be more effective if “threats against self” were differentiated from “threats against others.” Threat assessments and climate surveys are believed by some experts to be very effective measures of school safety.

Planning and Personnel: Virginia’s schools utilize school safety plans, emergency managers, and school resource officers to plan for the possibility of violent incidents.

1) The Commonwealth requires that each public school develop a school safety plan, the goal of which is to prepare the school with proper response procedures in the event of a crisis. JLARC’s report raised the concern that several school staff reported a need for additional training.

2) Virginia has required that each school division designate an “Emergency Manager.” The Virginia Code does not expound upon the duties and mandates of this position, however, the Center for Campus and School Safety has provided a resource sheet with additional guidance.

3) Many Virginia schools utilize School Resource Officers( SRO) or School Security Officers (SSO), the roles of which are often a mix of mediator or counselor, emergency responder, and mentor. The Virginia Commission on Youth is currently studying the role of SROs and SSO’s in Virginia schools. JLARC’s study raised the issue of a lack of defined roles and responsibilities for these individuals, as well as a lack of training.

Facilities and Testing Protocols: Schools across Virginia utilize a variety of methods to secure buildings and classrooms and to adequately test the ability of students and staff to act appropriately in crisis situations.

1) Physical safety measures are generally determined by the local school district, although these measures may be funded by state or federal grants or loans. Common physical safety measures include door-locking mechanisms, surveillance, or special communication devices.

2) Virginia mandates that each school conduct an annual school safety audit through the creation of audit committees. Among other goals, the audit is meant to assess the physical safety and security of the school facility. School safety audit requirements are developed and reviewed by DCJS’ Center for School and Campus Safety.  School climate surveys are sometimes a component of such audits.

3) Virginia requires schools to conduct lockdown drills to prepare staff and students for the appropriate response during violent incidents and other situations. Virginia’s Code does not specify or provide additional guidance as to the frequency of these drills.

An accurate understanding of past and current policies will be key as we move forward with logical and effective school safety measures. We hope you have found this overview helpful, and that you check out many of the resources we’ve shared. Stay tuned for our next post on the General Assembly’s most recent work to address school safety concerns.

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