Commentary: Recommendations for Safer Schools

Commentary: Recommendations for Safer Schools

All this year I have participated on the House Select Committee on School Safety tasked with finding ways to make schools safer in the wake of the tragedy at Parkland. The committee is comprised of 22 members of the General Assembly and includes three subcommittees: Infrastructure and Security; Student and Behavior; and, the subcommittee I sit on, Prevention and Response Protocol.

It is important to remember that, though our schools in Virginia are some of the safest in the country, this is a growing national safety concern, and our children’s safety is paramount. Indeed, Virginia many years ago was the first state to institute threat assessment protocol in K-12 and to measure school climate. We have a good head start on school safety but as you might imagine, there is much more we can do.

Moreover, here in the 44th district, I have hosted a number of similar meetings with concerned citizens that shared their valuable time and expertise with me, many of whom are educators, high school students and experts in school safety and active shooter response trainings, and a number of equally concerned elected officials: State Sen. Adam Ebbin, Del. Mark Sickles, School Board Chair and Mount Vernon District member Karen Corbett Sanders and Lee District School Board member Tammy Derenak Kaufax.

Through my participation on both the House and the community based committees we have found some possible paths towards an even safer and more nurturing school environment.

The main takeaway is that our tax dollars are better spent on prevention rather than responding after an attack. 69 percent of school shootings end in five minutes or less. Over 50 percent end in less than two minutes. No matter how many School Resource Officers are present or how quickly law enforcement officials are called, there isn’t much you can do to stop a shooting once it starts. However, there are steps we can take to prevent these tragedies before they occur. We can modernize our school facilities (for example getting rid of dual lock doors so that they can only open from the inside), institute mandatory trainings like we have for fire drills, and by far the most critical step we can take is to increase our funding for mental health services at schools.

A primary focus of both my subcommittee and the full committee is the need for additional mental health services at our schools. It was obvious to most of us that with children suffering from anxiety and mental illness at higher rates than ever, and 1 in 5 children diagnosed with a mental illness by age 18, that we must provide more mental health support for our students. Unfortunately, our current school counselors are overwhelmed with non-counseling work and compliance paperwork. One potential fix proposed is mandating that counselors spend a majority of their time on counseling activities. This is a great first step, but we still need more fully trained mental health professionals. 80 percent of children that receive mental health treatment report only receiving that treatment at school. So, if the school does not have available mental health support, most students simply will not receive the help they need and that can lead to tragic results.

Currently, there is no required ratio of psychologist or social workers to students as there is with guidance counselors. Psychologists and social workers are classified as “support staff” which also include positions like librarians and nurses. Schools receive approximately $580 million a year for support staff but that is just not enough. There are 57,000 more students in schools across the Commonwealth than in 2008 but 2,000 fewer support staff! A 2017 report from the Department of Education recommended ratios of one psychiatrist for every 1,000 students (costing $42 million to the state budget) and one social worker per 1,000 students which would cost the state around $48 million. Schools with lower counselor to student ratios have been found to have higher academic performance, better school climate and lower disciplinary rates, keeping students out of the school to prison pipeline. These trained professionals know how to look for warning signs in students (changes in interpersonal interactions, declining school performance, etc.) and how to treat them before they make a terrible choice.

On Tuesday, I was back in Richmond for the final subcommittee meeting and a full committee meeting to discuss which recommendations may end up in the final report that will be used to determine new legislation for the upcoming session in January 2019. The committee report will be finalized at the end of November with the recommendations sent to the General Assembly for possible adoption. Right now, increases in mental health services seems to be an area of bipartisan agreement, which I am hopeful will lead to desperately needed increases in funding next session. We need to fulfill our obligation to provide children with a nurturing environment, easily accessible mental health services, and most importantly of all safe schools.