School safety

Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, chairman of the House Education Committee and of a subcommittee of the House Select Committee on School Safety, hosted the subcommittee’s meeting Tuesday at University of Virginia School of Law. The meeting included presentations from education professors from both UVa and Virginia Tech.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Security cameras, panic buttons and bulletproof clipboards may be crisis response enhancements at schools, but professors told Virginia lawmakers Tuesday they need to focus more on prevention if they want to improve school safety and create effective learning environments.

“We prevent violence by helping all students be successful. I don’t want students to just be non-violent in school, I want them to be non-violent outside of school,” said Dewey Cornell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia. “To do this, we need a school climate where all students feel safe, secure, encouraged, challenged and can be successful.”

Several members of the House of Delegates gathered at the University of Virginia School of Law to learn about school discipline and school resources officers.

The legislators serve on a subcommittee of the bipartisan House Select Committee on School Safety, empaneled following the deadly shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school in February.

While the academics lauded Virginia for being ahead of the curve compared with other states by introducing early measures such as threat assessment teams to evaluate threats at all schools, they said there is still a lot to be done to ensure schools use programs effectively.

For instance, a survey last year showed that nearly half of Virginia’s high school employees were unaware of the existence of a threat assessment team. Schools have been resistant to reporting quality data on threat assessments, with 34 percent not reporting any threat assessments performed, which Cornell said means those schools likely are not actually using the procedure at all to review threats.

With more schools considering adding additional school resource officers and the state making money available to support the staffing, two Virginia Tech professors suggested schools have a better understanding about the role of police officers in schools.

One criticism of adding more school resource officers is that it leads to criminalizing behavior that is better handled outside of the court system. But schools also want students and parents comfortable reporting serious concerns to police.

“This is a fine needle to thread,” said Gerard Lawson, an associate professor of counselor education at Virginia Tech.

Three years ago, the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based investigative journalism outlet, reported that Virginia in a single year referred the most students to police or courts of any state. The investigation garnered statewide attention and various legislative proposals.

Lawson studied a more detailed data set of school discipline reporting in Virginia and found that it wasn’t quite so bad. Due to improper reporting by schools and duplicated data, Lawson found that law enforcement referrals were about a seventh of what the Center for Public Integrity determined.

However, he noted, the Center for Public Integrity determined that schools still referred black and special-needs students to law enforcement disproportionately. Lawson said there’s no evidence that black and special-needs children have worse behavior.

Lawson said he believes the disproportionality issue has roots in the classroom, where there are insufficient resources for managing discipline and unnecessary police involvement.

But to monitor a student’s behavior and intervene, he said, it’s better to keep them involved in the school system and have an eye on them rather than boot them out of school where they could be unsupervised and possibly in an adverse environment.

“You don’t want to remove them from educational opportunities and into [the] criminal justice system,” Lawson said.

Laura Welfare, an associate professor of counselor education at Virginia Tech, said an analysis is forthcoming of the extent to which school resource officers are addressing school disciplinary matters that don’t rise to criminal activity.

Both Lawson and Welfare recommended additional training, including trauma-informed care to better understand students’ behavior and their possible needs as well as clarity on the role of police officers in schools.

Lawmakers will come up with recommendations for legislation to be taken up in the next legislative session beginning in January.

“If we can prevent a problem, whether it’s violence against self or others, we won’t need all the infrastructural changes if we can get to prevention early,” said Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, chairman of the subcommittee.

Amy Friedenberger is the politics reporter for The Roanoke Times. She's been a reporter here since 2014. Previously, she worked for newspapers in Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter at @ajfriedenberger.

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