HARRISONBURG – The Virginia House of Delegates has a blueprint for how it hopes to improve school safety during the upcoming General Assembly session.
A special committee appointed by Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, after last February’s deadly school shooting in Florida agreed to a set of 24 recommendations Wednesday that it will take up in January when the full legislature convenes.
“It gives us a nice template to go by and make progress this session,” Cox said Wednesday on the campus of James Madison University, where the committee held its final meeting.
Included in the group’s recommendations was an endorsement of increasing funding for more school resource officers, more time spent by counselors with students and creating a mental health and suicide prevention tip line, among others.
While champions of the effort to boost funding for school resource officers – better known as SROs – say officers are best equipped to handle school threats, critics say their presence leads to more suspensions and arrests, specifically for students of color.
“The Commonwealth does not need to place more law enforcement officers in schools,” Amy Woolard, the policy coordinator and an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, wrote in a letter to the committee that was co-signed by 25 other organizations.
Woolard said Wednesday: “Investing in school support staff relevant to and certified to address the deep needs of students will both take unnecessary pressures off of teachers and allow them to teach, and alleviate the confusion and sometimes improper responses when SROs attempt to stand in as mental health professionals.”
Of Virginia’s 133 school districts, 127 already employ school resource officers, with 57 percent of schools having an SRO. The vast majority of SROs are in middle and high schools
The committee wants the state to pay for 44 new SRO positions – police officers employed by the local law enforcement agency and work in schools – at a cost of $1.76 million. The state has set aside $1.3 million each year since 2014 to help divisions deploy the officers through a grant program established in 1999.
“That probably does as much good as anything,” Cox said, of helping fund the officers, after the meeting. He added that it’s important for the officers to be integrated in school communities and build strong relationships with students.
Robert Boyd, the executive director of Secure Schools Alliance, a Delaware-based advocacy group that works on school safety research and legislation, said SROs should be carefully trained and invested in the schools they’re in.
“It’s a calling, just like teaching,” Boyd said. “Police officers that want to be in schools need to be involved in what we’re now calling relationship-based policing.
“They ought to be involved in the everyday life of a school. They’re not just there to enforce the law – they’re really there to have this relationship-based policing with our youngest citizens.”
A separate recommendation would allow retired police officers to serve full-time as SROs and continue receiving retirement money, something they can't currently do. An initial recommendation to allow private schools to apply for and receive SRO grant money was not part of the final package endorsed by the committee.
After the Parkland shooting and in the midst of the deadliest academic year from school shootings in recent decades, elected officials across the state and country convened groups to figure out how to keep students safe while they’re in school.
Many concluded that more school-based officers are needed.
“It’s not just a cop in a school,” said Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. “They’re there to work with the school, not against the school.”
A Chesterfield County task force agreed, recommending an increase in SROs as part of its package of suggestions that are set to be presented to the county school board in December.
Jackie Ruiz, a Chesterfield parent, said police don’t have a place in schools.
“This plan will only fan the flames of hate and discrimination and perpetuate the lie that violence could stop violence,” she said.
A report released last month from the Virginia-based nonprofit Legal Aid Justice Center showed that black students in Virginia were suspended at rates five times higher than Hispanic and white students during the 2016-17 academic year.
“The most important action the General Assembly could take this session for all students and school staff is to invest in the types of prevention and intervention efforts proven to address student needs as early and comprehensively as possible - to be proactive rather than reactive - and school support staff are best positioned to provide those supports,” said Woolard, the center’s policy coordinator.
The committee's recommendations will be part of a final report from Cox and will need to be introduced as legislation.