What makes a school safe? Three state delegates say it’s more than checkpoints and metal detectors, and that their colleagues in the Virginia House aren’t doing enough to keep kids safe.
Delegates Schuyler VanValkenburg of the 72nd District, Mike Mullin of the 93rd District, and Jeff Bourne of the 71st District have issued a set of policy proposals to Virginia Speaker Kirk Cox and a newly-formed Select Committee on School Safety advocating a broader approach than their current focus on school shootings.
Reached by phone yesterday, VanValkenburg, a public school teacher, said the Department of Education defines school safety by several components, listing, “bullying, discrimination, day-to-day violence, the school climate.” He said he’d never downplay the tragedy of a school shooting scenario, but that school safety is too important to focus on only one issue.
“It seems to be the status quo for a lot of these committees to define a narrow focus around school shooters and how you can keep them out,” he said. “Fixing how you enter a school is an appropriate step, but it’s not adequate [on it’s own].” The safety committee has refused to consider gun policy or behavioral health according to a statement by Cox that referred to other considerations as “partisan.”
The delegates want Cox and the committee to increase support staff and provide mental health services, all in line with Department of Education guidelines. “You need to be looking at the behavioral and emotional needs of children,” VanValkenburg said. State spending on schools has fallen sharply since the recession of 2008, resulting in a $1 billion dollar shortfall. One consequence of that funding gap has been a reduction in support staff. The other consequence has been insufficient infrastructure spending, which has exacerbated the physical deterioration of Richmond public school buildings.
Following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, safety committees have sprung up in localities and states across the country, all focused on mass-casualty shooting attacks. VanValkenburg pointed to statistics on violence that show most children find safe refuge from guns in school. A 2015 report by Erin Nekvasil and Dewey Cornell at the University of Virginia showed that children were 200 times more likely to be the victim of homicide outside of schools, supporting VanValkenburg’s numbers, and calling into question the “hardening” mindset that the state committee is solely considering.
“School safety isn’t just homicides,” he said. While making students safer is good on its own, he argued that a broader focus offers even more benefits. “If you’re being holistic in looking at school safety issues, the knock-on effect is that you’re improving education, period.”
Despite Cox’s initial statements, VanValkenburg was hopeful that their proposals would be included in the final safety committee report, due before the House begins its fall session in November. Some forty-five groups have signed letters making similar policy requests, including the Legal Aid Center, Richmond Academy of Medicine, and Moms Demand Action. “There’s a coalition of people who want this,” he said. ”Hopefully as we move to the subcommittee hearings, we’ll be able to get those ideas out and to the committee.”