State school safety panel recommends bullet-resistant whiteboards, more guidance counselors, more police

By: - September 11, 2018 2:06 pm

A special House of Delegates committee floated 54 ways the state could make schools safer from the threat of shootings and violence. Among them: Bullet-resistant whiteboards, more guidance counselors, more school resource officers.

The long list – which lawmakers say they still need to price out and winnow down – had something for everyone, with one major exception: none of the recommendations touch on access to guns.

The outcome was expected. Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, had said from the outset that the committee wouldn’t focus on guns, saying he wanted to consider ideas that the Republican-controlled General Assembly might actually pass.

It nonetheless prompted immediate criticism from Democrats, who said in a statement that while the list included “many good bipartisan recommendations,” they “do little to address the dangers of gun violence in our schools or neighborhoods.” The state, they said, needs to take steps “to keep dangerous firearms out of the hands of troubled students.”

Those complaints aside, the proposal included several measures for which Democrats have advocated. A big one that’s already been flagged as potentially costing the state a lot of money is to lower the ratio of school counselors to students, which currently ranges from one counselor to every 350 to 500 students. The Virginia School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one for every 250 students.

Another measure suggests cutting down on administrative duties like test coordination that have been assigned to counselors over the years by requiring that 80 percent of their work be dedicated to student services.

Lawmakers are also mulling whether to increase funding for school resource officers and whether to make state funding for resource officers available to private schools. The latter proposal is already generating debate.

Other themes: increasing state funding for safety infrastructure (like the aforementioned whiteboards), the creation of some kind of statewide tip line or app and mandating or at least encouraging better coordination between schools and emergency officials.

From here, lawmakers said they’ll work to determine how much it would actually cost to implement the various suggestions and then set about narrowing down the list.

“I think the theory was, let’s go ahead and get everything in front of you and figure out various ways to get input and see what bubbles to the top,” Cox said.

The full committee has tentatively agreed to meet on Nov. 14 to finalize the recommendations.

Here’s the full list:

  1. Require the use of a memorandum of understanding between each local school board and the relevant local law-enforcement agency regarding the use of school resource officers.
  2. Increase funding for the school resource officer grant program, currently funded at $1.3 million per year, though the current fiscal year includes an additional $1.3 million.
  3. Increase funding for mental health services in public elementary and secondary schools: “There are many reports of increased mental health issues in schools,” the report said.
  4. Recommend cooperative agreements between school boards and the Department of Social Services and Community Service Boards to provide mental health and community-based services for students.
  5. Recommend that all localities enter into mutual aid agreements with other localities to provide emergency services to establish expectations and promote the availability of additional assistance in emergency situations.
  6. Recommend that school board employees responsible for procurement work with local fire marshals to ensure that any infrastructure improvement complies with the Statewide Fire Prevention Code. Currently, schools can purchase items to increase building security, such as doors and door locks, that do not comply with the code.
  7. Require all school board employees to complete Crisis Intervention Team training. “Increasing CIT training will allow school board employees to more easily recognize mental health issues and de-escalate them in a timely manner.”
  8. Recommend that the state Board of Education amend its regulations establishing the standards of accreditation to permit school counselors to return to providing counseling services. Many schools currently require school counselors to perform administrative responsibilities such as testing coordination.
  9. Amend the statutory provisions relating to the retirement of law-enforcement officers so that retired law-enforcement officers can serve as resource officers. Currently, retired law-enforcement officers cannot work as resource officers and still receive their retiree benefits.
  10. Increase funding to the Department of Criminal Justice Services for additional school safety training programs and personnel.
  11. Amend the Virginia Juvenile Community Crime Control Act so that community services can be provided to juveniles before they are brought before the court on a complaint or petition.
  12. Recommend increased collaboration in school safety audits and crisis management planning. Currently, school boards are required to perform school safety audits and develop crisis management plans, but it’s unclear whether the boards do so in collaboration with first responders.
  13. Recommend the development or purchase of an anonymous suicide tip/chat mobile application.
  14. Establish a commission to explore the development of a state-run suicide hotline/mobile application.
  15. Lower the ratio of school counselors to students in public elementary and secondary schools. The current ration ranges from 1:350 to 1:500. The Virginia School Counselor association recommends a ratio of 1:250. (Flagged as having a significant fiscal impact.)
  16. Begin funding the Delinquency Prevention and Youth Development Act, which was defunded in 2004 but would allow at-risk youth to receive community services and support before they are brought to court.
  17. Change the date of June primary elections from the second Tuesday in June to the Third Tuesday in June, ensuring they are held when schools have closed for the summer, preventing access to school buildings used as polling places.
  18. Make the November General Election a school holiday, again, to avoid inviting the general public into polling places at public schools while they’re in session.
  19. Recommend that school boards provide all employees with access to mobile push applications that would allow them to communicate quickly with first responders during emergencies.
  20. Recommend that school boards provide web-based anonymous tip applications to school board employees, students and students’ parents.
  21. Recommend that school boards explore the possibility of purchasing ballistic barriers and installing such barriers in school building. “Innovations in ballistic barrier technology have enabled functional educational items such as dry erase white boards to be made bulletproof.”
  22. Recommend integrating school security cameras with emergency communications centers.
  23. Increase funding for the School Security Equipment Grant Act of 2013.
  24. Permit private elementary and secondary schools to apply for and receive school resource officer grants. “There is a growing demand for school resource officers among private elementary and secondary schools in the commonwealth.”
  25. Require school boards to collaborate with the local fire department to annually review building and fire codes for each school building.
  26. Recommend that the Department of Criminal Justice Services establish best practices for each annual safety-related review that school boards are required to perform.
  27. Require certain minimum security standards for all public elementary and secondary schools, which should include standards for both physical security and cybersecurity.
  28. Recommend that the state or school boards explore the possibility of procuring a social media monitoring program or service.
  29. Require a professional trained in “crime prevention through environmental design” review each school building project, including new construction and renovation projects.
  30. Establish a consensus-driven process for school design and security planning that includes public safety personnel, architects, engineers, school officials and other who may have experience with school safety audits. This was a recommendation of the 2013 Governor’s School & Campus Safety Taskforce.
  31. Require public safety agencies to coordinate the inclusion of local school divisions in the public safety voice communications system.
  32. Design professionals, school officials, police chiefs/sheriffs, fire officials and building officials should form a team at the local level to avoid conflicts in law and regulations when “the educational occupancy is having any type of security infrastructure improvements made for new or existing educational occupancies.” (This was a recommendation of the 2013 Governor’s School and Campus Safety Taskforce.
  33. Mandatory training for threat assessment team members. Training is frequently provided, but not required under the code of Virginia.
  34. Increase funding to the Center for School and Campus Safety to provide more training, technical assistance and resources on threat assessment. The center provides frequent training but additional funding would allow the implementation of recommendations one and two.
  35. Standardize threat assessment data collection. State code requires threat assessment teams to report data on its activities, but standardizing collection would make it easier to interpret the data.
  36. Increase funding to the Center for School and Campus Safety to build capacity to analyze safety data collected from schools. The center does not currently have the budget to hire staff with the expertise to perform such a task.
  37. Decouple the assessment of student threats to self from the assessment of students threat to others in the current threat assessment procedures. Threat assessment tams spend the majority of their time and resources on threats to self, for which there are already procedures in place.
  38. Require statewide implementation of a school-climate survey.
  39. Provide funding for staff and training related to de-escalation of student misconduct through positive behavior intervention and supports.
  40. Provide funding to strengthen existing school-based mentor programs or establish new school-based mentor programs for students whose behavior may pose a risk to self or others.
  41. Promote the implementation of restorative justice programs as an alternative to exclusionary discipline and referrals to law enforcement to address disparities in rates of such disciplinary actions among minority students and students with disabilities.
  42. Remove the funding cap on support staff to increase opportunities for school divisions to hire additional aides, counselors, psychologists and other specialists. The General Assembly has had a cap in place since the 2008 recession. (Flagged as having a significant fiscal impact.)
  43. Require school counselors to spend a minimum of 80 percent of staff time providing direct student service. School counselors across the state are burdened with administrative duties like test coordination and do not have sufficient time to counsel students.
  44. Create new positions such as testing coordinator to relieve school counselors of additional administrative duties and ensure they have sufficient time to provide counseling services.
  45. Include mental health counselors in the Standards of Quality. Provide the state share of funding for local school divisions to hire counselors with backgrounds or training in mental health. Some school divisions are currently hiring such individuals with local funds. (Flagged as having a significant fiscal impact.)
  46. Provide funding for enhanced wrap-around mental health services in school such as suicide prevention and trauma-informed schooling.
  47. Require mental health screenings or annual semi-annual mental health wellness checks for students at certain grade levels. “Students reported to the subcommittee that both early and frequent (especially in the middle and high school years) mental health screenings and check-ups would be beneficial for student well-being and support.”
  48. Promote peer advisory teams for new students.
  49. Require mental health to be taught as a component of any family life education program offered in a local school division.
  50. Require mental health training for teachers. “Mental health is an emerging issue in schools and it’s important that teachers are trained to identify and assist students suffering from mental health challenges.”
  51. Require school crisis, emergency management and medical emergency response plans to place more emphasis on the recovery phase of crisis response.
  52. Require memoranda of understanding between law enforcement and school divisions that clearly delineate procedures and expectations relating to school safety.
  53. Require training for school resource officers with a wider array of topics, including student mental health, interacting with students with disabilities, bullying and interacting with parents. Survey data shows that school resource officers believe they would benefit from additional training on these topics.
  54. Require annual school-wide or classroom-by-classroom training for students on school safety procedures.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.