Va. lawmakers discuss security and mental health with first responders, school leaders

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — State fire and law enforcement officials met with members of a special committee on school safety on Thursday.

This comes one day after the full House Select Committee on School Safety met for the second time since it formed. House Speaker Kirk Cox created the group following the deadly high school shooting in Parkland, Florida earlier this year. 

“These are our families. These are our children. This is about our future,” Del. Chris Peace (New Kent, Prince William and Hanover County – R) said. He’s the chair of the subcommittee on prevention and protocols. “School safety doesn’t just end at the bus stop.” 

Today, delegates focused their efforts on the unique security issues schools face across Virginia. Del. Peace says there are different issues in urban areas compared to his rural home district.

“In my area, for example like New Kent, that has one high school and one middle school. There’s one road in and one road out. If there’s a crisis, that can become a logjam,” he explained. 

One of the main things discussed was the increase in mental health calls law enforcement are responding to. Sheriff Timothy Carter from the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office says there “aren’t enough” counseling services available to youth to handle the number of calls. 

“These incidents are primarily happening in the high schools. There needs to be, in my opinion, additional funding for community service and mental health resources,” Sheriff Carter said. “There are counseling services provided in the schools, but there appears to be a disconnect between those counseling services and those that are provided outside of the school system.” 

Ashland Police Chief Doug Goodman is also seeing more calls likes these in his town. He says more training, especially for School Resource Officers, could help departments and schools handle these responses. But, there is a cost. 

“But more training is always preferred. To do that is a financial burden, whether you have to have officers come in on their days off and pay then overtime to do the training,” he explained. 

Chief Goodman says SROs play a really important role in our communities. 

“They’re the face of the guardian. The kids need trust them to protect them and the parents need to know that they are trained. That they are capable and that they are well equipped to respond,” Chief Goodman said.

More training, Goodman says, could help make these officers more equipped. Right now it’s not mandated by the Commonwealth. 

The ratio of counselors to students is 1 to 350 in New Kent County, where Dr. David Myers is the Superintendent. He presented some of his school division’s strategies for prevention and protocols. Myers also emphasized how little time counselors get to work with students if they’re having a mental health situation.  

“Counselors are spending a lot of time on logistical things and a lot less on crisis,” he said, explaining that many counselors also work with students on college preparations. 

While many schools are trying to be proactive with installing new security in buildings, if it’s not done properly it could cause more problems. Delegates heard from the Executive Director of the Department of Fire Programs, Michael Reilly, who explained one issue he saw in the field when doing an inspection. A school division put “supplemental locking devices” on the inside of two elementary schools. 

“They did not bring this information to the State Fire Marshal… We found that these lock mechanisms were in violation of the fire code but also the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Reilly said. 

This could make it hard for someone to get out of the building. 

In an active shooter situation, Reilly says guns aren’t the only weapon – fire is too. He says the shooter in the Parkland incident also had a molotov cocktail. 

“If someone can’t get out of their classroom when their school’s on fire, that would supply some challenges for us as well,” Reilly said.

This subcommittee is planning to meet again in August. One of the things they expect to put on the agenda is an overview on what is put in the budget for behavioral responses and counseling for youth. The also expect to have their recommendations to bring forward to the full committee in September. The delegates intend to have ideas ready for the legislature in December, ahead of the start of session. 

As a parent too, Chief Goodman hopes they can all make sure kids feel safe getting on that school bus. 

“That’s why we’re all here today to make sure that parents in the Commonwealth can send their children to school,” Chief Goodman said. 

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