Virginia lawmakers recommend increasing funding for mental health, school resource officers

School resource officers Erica Loor (left) and Jason Johnson speak with students at George Wythe High School in Richmond. State lawmakers have suggested spending more money on police officers in schools.  

Virginia needs to spend more on school resource officers and mental health services to improve school safety, state legislators recommended Tuesday.

The House Select Committee on School Safety on Tuesday received a set of about 50 recommendations compiled since the committee’s inception in March, weeks after 17 people were shot and killed at a high school in Parkland, Fla. The recommendations, prepared by three subcommittees without an attached cost, were not voted on, something that the full committee plans to do before the start of the 2019 General Assembly session.

None of the recommendations relates to gun control, a solution often proposed in the wake of deadly mass shootings like those in Florida and Santa Fe, Texas, last school year. Last year had the highest death toll in a single academic year from school shootings in recent decades, according to Education Week, which tracks such attacks.

The state is seen by others 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 composed of a mix of school and law enforcement officials, investigate potential threats to school safety.

“I have every intention of that continuing to be the case,” said House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, a retired government teacher.

There is still room for improvement, though, as the 12 Republicans and 10 Democrats who comprise the full committee unanimously approved the more than 50 recommendations in their subcommittees. Details on the recommendations are still relatively vague, with more details expected in the committee’s final report.

The committee has yet to have much of a debate as a group, relying instead — by the design of committee chairman Cox — to do much of its work in its subcommittees.

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 state created a grant program in 1999 for school resource officers, who are police officers employed by the local law enforcement agency and work in schools, and has given out $1.3 million each year since 2014 to help districts employ what many see as a deterrent to violence in schools.

This year’s grant program doubled in size, with $2.6 million allocated to grants awarded to 38 localities.

A separate recommendation would allow retired police officers to serve as SROs and continue receiving retirement money.

“If you want to go back to work, you lose those benefits,” said Charles Quagliato, a member of the state’s division of legislative services.

The infrastructure committee also recommended allowing private schools to apply for and receive SRO grant money.

“I don’t know why we would use public dollars to fund private schools who want to put SROs in their schools,” said David Toscano, D-Charlottesville.

Academic research is split on the effectiveness of school resource officers and their role as a crime deterrent. Advocates say SROs best handle school threats, while critics say their presence leads to more suspensions and arrests, specifically for students of color.

According to the most recent federal data, black students constituted 23 percent of Virginia’s student population, but saw a disproportional amount of suspensions at 59 percent of short-term suspensions, 57 percent of long-term suspensions and 43 percent of expulsions.

The new SROs employed by the additional money would be trained on student mental health, among other things, under a recommendation from the student behavior subcommittee.

Virginia doesn’t have any specific ratio requirements for support staff such as school psychologists and social workers, but the Virginia School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students.

No school level in the state meets those staffing levels.

In high schools, the average ratio is one counselor for every 350 students, and it gets worse from there. Middle schools have a 1-to-400 ratio, while elementary schools enroll 500 students for every counselor, according to data presented to committee members.

In the Richmond area, Richmond Public Schools has the best ratio of support staff — in this calculation defined as school psychologists, social workers and guidance counselors — at one staff member for every 187 students, based on the state data.

Hanover and Henrico post ratios of 1-298 and 1-246, respectively, while Chesterfield has a 1-360 ratio.

The subcommittee also recommended that school counselors spend at least 80 percent of their time providing direct student support, something legislators were told by counselors is difficult now because of their administrative workload. That would require the hiring of more staff members to handle that work.

Before the subcommittees presented recommendations, a group of three Democratic lawmakers made their own policy recommendations this summer, saying legislators needed to look at mental health and gun control, among other things.

“Safety is not just about school shootings; it is about bullying, discrimination, and day-to-day violence,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, a government teacher in Henrico County, when announcing the group’s recommendations. “The solutions to improved safety in our schools are not just adjustments to physical infrastructure, but also increased support staff and mental services and assuring we are creating schools that are community safe spaces.”

The committee does not yet know the entire cost of the recommendations.

“That’ll be helpful and instructive to this committee when we get back together,” said House Appropriations Chairman Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.

The group plans to meet again in mid-November to vote on final recommendations.

Cox said he expects two-thirds of the recommendations will be adopted.

Sep 11, 2018
By Justin Mattingly
Richmond Times-Dispatch