Tackling safety at schools, House Select Committee meets for second time

Capitol Connection

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. — The special committee of Virginia lawmakers that formed following the high school shooting in Parkland, Fl. met for a second time on Wednesday.

The House Select Committee on School Safety is made up of 21 delegates, 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats. House Speaker Kirk Cox is the chair.

“With Parkland and what’s happened in other areas you are, you’re anxious,” Speaker Cox (Colonial Heights – R) said. “We are just trying to do everything we can to try to make schools as safe as possible.”

The delegates were given a tour of Meadowbrook High School, taking a look at security put in place at the school. They also reviewed research by the University of Virginia, presented by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. It evaluated safety measures at schools in Virginia and other states, including Florida and Texas.

One of the things the research pointed out is while each Virginia school is required to a have a safety plan, some of the coordinators or specialists accountable for “planning, staffing and activities” didn’t have “defined responsibilities or training.”

Overall, it shows that when audits or plans are put in place, standards are different across the Commonwealth. This is one of the things Speaker Cox says the group should take a look at moving forward.

“One of the things that we really need to look at would be, whether it be a school safety audit or anything that you’re doing in that case, is any third party looking at those?” he said.

Along with this many discussed different levels of training given to School Resource Officers. Some floated the idea of mandating training for them. SROs at least nine states, according to the research presented, are given specialized training. This is also a point advocates, like the Legal Aid Justice Center, backed in a letter given to the committee and Governor Northam last week.

The research also touched on the use of hotlines or tiplines that are geared towards students. In Colorado specifically, the research shows the state’s tip line program “prevented 28 attacks over a six-year period.”

Speaker Cox says “any kind of app is valuable,” but it has to be done well.

“The key there is that generally, it’s a good idea. Make sure it’s limited enough that it’s actually effective and people are actually using it,” he said.

An issue the committee is not tasked to tackle is gun control, but it’s still on the minds of Democrats working in the group. Three delegates, a prosecutor, teacher and former school board member, laid out their agenda earlier on Wednesday to a group of parents.

“Do we think that these gun proposals are going to stop the Parkland shooter? Maybe not necessarily, but what we think that these proposals can do is help make it so fewer kids have access to guns they shouldn’t have access to, which is a part of the solution,” Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (Henrico – D) said.

The others include Del. Mike Mullin (Newport News – D) and Del. Jeff Bourne (Richmond – D). Their ideas include tightening civil and criminal penalties for improperly storing guns and to mandate people to report stolen weapons.  

Del. VanValkenburg says you can’t separate gun control from the other issues at hand.

“If you just try to tackle it with school infrastructure like metal detectors or one entrance or more SROs you’re not addressing all of the other issues that play on violence,” he added.

Among other things, the group also wants to increase the number of support staff workers, by eliminating a budgetary cap put in place in 2010 under the Kaine administration.

In the interim, House Speaker Kirk Cox said there are already a lot of issues the committee is trying to find solutions for. If the group started talking about the gun debate, he says the whole conversation would be focused on that instead of many other issues affecting students and staff.

“You can put legislation in for a delegate on any legislation on, but this committee is really going to try to focus on can we build a consensus and I think we can,” Speaker Cox said.

Over the next few weeks, the subcommittees will work on recommendations. The full group will have other meetings in September and November to go over them. In December, they hope to have the final recommendations ready to give to the legislature for the 2019 session.

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