Democrats say safety recommendations produced by the Select Committee on School Safety show merit and have bipartisan support, but they still believe the report doesn’t completely address the safety needs in schools.
The Select Committee report that was backed by GOP leadership with Speaker of the House Kirk Cox (R – Colonial Heights) serving as Chairman, offered up 24 recommendations to the General Assembly on how to improve school safety.
The report included: proposals to realign the role of school counselors, develop a statewide mental health and suicide prevention tip line application, increase funding for School Resource Officers, increase funding for school security grants, and creating a Commission on Student Mental Health which will continue to study a number of important topics considered by the committee.
“When I formed the Select Committee on School Safety, I promised that our final product would be comprehensive and consensus-driven,” said Speaker Kirk Cox. “I am confident we have accomplished this goal.”
The Select Committee consisted of 12 Republicans and 10 Democrats.
Democrats released a separate minority report stating that the recommendations should go further, writing “Our view, however, is that we must go further. We believe the Select Committee should adopt goals to be achieved over time.”
Recommendations that the Democrats proposed would increase funding to school counselors and introduce legislation for proactive gun control by working to “ensure troubled students do not have ready access to dangerous firearms.”
Democrats proposed risk warrants, which involves a court order being issued to temporarily remove a weapon from the home of a child that is deemed a risk to harming themselves or others. Additionally, Democrats proposed harsher penalties for improper storage of firearms, or for failing to report a weapon has been lost or stolen.
In their minority report, Democrats disagreed with the Select Committee not considering any measures on gun control when making recommendations to the General Assembly, saying they “cannot ignore the role of firearms in mass school shootings”
The School Safety Committee was told to exclude any talks of gun control from their work. Speaker Cox said that this was done to keep the conversation productive. He told the Virginian-Pilot this summer that “Once we go there, that’s all we’ll discuss.”
Without gun control talks being allowed, the major focus for both sides was the mental health support system in public schools. Funding for counselors has been drastically cut over the past 9 years due to the recession. Virginia needed to balance the budget in 2009 and in order to do this, a cap was implemented on state funding for support staff in public schools.
The new formula that was implemented with the cap put the localities across the state on the hook to pay for the budget cuts of more than $300 million per year to public schools.
This translated into the state cutting funding for about 12,900 support positions from the amount recognized before the cap’s implementation in 2010, which accounted for 36% of the support staff funding. If the localities could not pay for position, then the position was eliminated.
The cap level is not based on how many support staff schools employ or need, but on a ratio of how many instructional staff schools have compared to support staff.
With the same cap still in place today, Speaker Cox has stated that he is open to removing certain positions from the cap that pertain to mental health, but he does not want to remove the cap all together.
Democrats and Republicans agree on the need to help counselors reach the work ratio of 80% counseling and 20% administrative duties. Taking a counselor away from duties like test administration and other tasks around the school would help free up more time for that counselor to meet with more students.
However, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg told Richmond 2day that achieving that ratio fails to address the issue of school counselors handling oversized caseloads. “While moving to a 80/20 ratio is a step in the right direction it doesn’t solve the core problem, which is counselors are responsible for too many students. They cannot adequately look after the academic, behavioral, and mental health of students when their caseloads are reaching 1:450 in high schools and much worse in elementary and middle schools.”
Delegates VanValkenburg, Bourne, and Mullin proposed to the Select Committee recommending limiting the number of students one counselor has on their caseload to 250, which would be a significant drop from the state average of 385 students per school counselor creating more time that a counselor can spend with students. The proposal was rejected by the Select Committee according to the report released by the Democrats.
Democrats agreed with the Select Committee’s recommendation to require all school divisions that receive funding through the School Resource Officer Grants Program to enter into an MOU with local law enforcement that outlines the roles, responsibilities, and expectations of the School Resource Officer, the school division, and the law enforcement agency. However, the Democrats want to avoid militarizing schools for protections writing that “most students, teachers, and administrators believe that while we should always strive for safer schools, we must avoid creating a perception that schools are “armed camps” to be defended rather than safe places where education can occur.”
While the Democrats note multiple times in their report that they support the ideas that the Select Committee advised the General Assembly to pursue, they believe that those ideas alone will not fully address the problems that can lead to violence in schools. Both chambers begin their legislative session next month, while they also prepare for an election cycle with all 140 General Assembly seats up-for-grabs in November. A lot of those seats will be competitive, so we could seat a different majority in each chamber in 2020 – meaning the minority report could be coming from the Republicans instead of the Democrats.
Read the entire report from the Democrats