When 17 people were shot and killed by a former student at a Florida high school in 2018, Virginia lawmakers promised to make the state’s public schools safer.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, convened a bipartisan select committee — the first one in more than 150 years — that spent eight months developing 24 recommendations that members said would improve security for the more than 1 million students in Virginia classrooms.
Many of those recommendations were tackled in this year’s General Assembly session. Those recommendations met mixed results, with some bills — most notably efforts to have students spend more time with school counselors — passing as others were killed.
“We’re on the right track, but we’re not there yet,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, a member of the special committee and a teacher in Henrico County.
Lawmakers wanted to address a subpar counselor-to-student ratio as part of a broader goal of improving access to mental and behavioral health resources. If they want to get the ratio in line with best practices, they will have to increase funding again next year.
VanValkenburg and Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, another member of the committee, said the legislature must look at school climate, specifically the school-to-prison pipeline, after several bills on the issue were killed this year.
Cox spokesman Parker Slaybaugh said the speaker, a retired teacher, considers the work of the committee to be “an absolute success. ... The committee was responsible for nearly a dozen pieces of legislation that will undoubtedly make our students safer in school.”
The most widely hailed measure was having school counselors spend more time with students, shifting administrative duties away from counselors to new staff positions such as testing coordinators. Other recommendations include improving training for school resource officers and clarifying what those officers are in schools to accomplish.
Virginia does not have any specific ratio requirements for support staff such as school psychologists and social workers, but the Virginia School Counselor Association recommends having one counselor for every 250 students.
In Virginia’s public high schools, the average ratio is one counselor for every 350 students, and it gets worse from there. Middle schools have a ratio of 1 to 400, while elementary schools enroll 500 students for every counselor, according to state data.
Lawmakers approved $12 million to hire more counselors. Gov. Ralph Northam and the House originally proposed $36 million for more counselors, but a budget deal struck in February funds just a third of that. Lawmakers instead decided to pay for other priorities such as freezing college tuition and giving raises to state employees.
“If we’re investing in people and we’re investing in professionals, we’re investing in safety and academics at the same time,” VanValkenburg said.
Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston said he thought lawmakers made “significant progress” in improving school safety, including more training for school resource officers and threat assessment teams, but he wished they would have funded more school counselors.
“We still need many more, at all levels,” Livingston said. “Counselors are vital to creating the kind of positive and healthy school climate essential to safety.”
Virginia is seen nationally as a model for school safety, mostly due to its threat assessment teams, implemented after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting and the 2012 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. The teams, often made up of a mix of school and law enforcement officials, investigate potential threats to school safety.
State law requires each threat assessment team to have members who are experts in counseling, instruction, school administration and law enforcement. Virginia schools are allowed to have school resource officers and school security officers, two positions that were heavily addressed this year.
Schools with resource officers must now enter into memorandums of understanding with local law enforcement over the roles and responsibilities of the officers in schools, another major recommendation that saw success this year.
Some members of the special committee and members of the public voiced concerns over the officers being too involved in everyday school decisions that could result in students being referred to the juvenile court system.
Northam vetoed only one school safety bill, a piece of legislation that was not among the 24 recommendations.
A bill from Del. Bob Thomas, R-Stafford, would have created “school protection officers” — retired police officers who would work part time for local police and help with security at schools. Northam vetoed the bill on March 26, saying it was not clear exactly what the officers would be doing and how they would be trained. The House failed to get the 66 votes needed to override Northam’s veto.
“Allowing a new type of officer with undefined duties and indeterminate training will not serve to make Virginia’s students and schools safer,” Northam said when vetoing the bill. “Therefore, there is no compelling reason to create school protection officers when Virginia law already provides for two types of trained officers to provide security in the Commonwealth’s schools.”
A Northam spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.
While some of the major recommendations of the committee were approved, others were killed.
Lawmakers struck down a bill to change the date of primary elections in June from the second Tuesday to the third Tuesday so students and faculty would not be in class when members of the public were on and in school property. They also killed a bill to make the November election day a student holiday.
Another bill would have allowed retired police officers to be hired as school resource officers and school security officers without it affecting their retirement benefits. That bill was left in the House Appropriations Committee.
“These are some good steps,” said Bourne, a former chairman of the Richmond School Board, about the bills that passed. “We’ve got some more things to do but, overall, I think we made schools safer.”
Bills that were approved will take effect July 1.