RICHMOND, Va. — Ahead of the House Select Committee on School Safety meeting, a letter was sent to lawmakers and Governor Northam detailing what 24 advocacy organizations think students need.
The letter, penned by the Legal Aid Justice Center, lists recommendations on ways to create a safe and supportive environment for students following a number of tragedies at schools nationwide.
“Many children are coming to school with more than just a backpack,” said Rachael Deane, the Legal Director of the JustChildren Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center. “They’re coming to school with trauma histories, with abuse histories.”
Taking note of the work the General Assembly has done following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Ct., Deane says the focus should now turn to emotional support for youth and training for law enforcement working in schools.
One of the main points of the letter is increasing “support staff” at schools across the Commonwealth, for positions such as nurses and counselors. Deane says the state should “invest in the type of positions that provide support, mental and behavioral health services” to students.
The letter encourages the General Assembly to “lift the arbitrary, recession-era cap on school support positions, following the Virginia Board of Education’s 2017 recommendations to revise the Standards of Quality.”
In other words following a change in the “cap” in the budget, the LAJC would want the General Assembly and school divisions to follow the Board of Education’s recommendations for how many staff members there are per student. For example, one guidance counselor per 350 high schoolers.
Another aspect of the letter focuses on School Resource Officers, which have worked in schools statewide for a number of years. It suggests officers should have more training to help address the needs of students. Deane says this is in part because some officers are coming off of patrols in the streets. Handling situations in a school can be very different.
“The type of training that we recommend for school resource officers is very youth development centered. It takes into account the brain development of youth, the particular ways to work with students that have disabilities or trauma histories,” she explained. “It gives resource officers the tools to de-escalate a situation without resorting to the use of force or using over disciplinary tactics.”
Rather than adding more police in schools, Deane says there should be more “accountability and better training” for the officers already working closely with students.
The chairman of the House Select Committee on School Safety is House Speaker Kirk Cox (Chesterfield County/Colonial Heights – R). In a statement from his spokesperson, Parker Slaybaugh, “The Select Committee on School Safety has received numerous letters from groups interested in the work of the Select Committee. All suggestions, regardless of who they are from, will be used to help inform the important work the committee is doing.”
The committee is meeting next Wednesday at Meadowbrook High School in Chesterfield County. According to the General Assembly schedule, House Democrats are expected to release their agenda for the school safety committee just before the meeting.