Floor plan

Virginia state superintendent revisits school safety after Texas shooting

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration is once again reviewing school safety after the second-deadliest shooting on record.

Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut in 2012, Virginia increased its resources and security requirements.

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said a similar reckoning would follow the tragic deaths of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Texas.

In an interview Thursday, Balow said she is already seeking input from local school divisions. She said she will present the results of those conversations to Governor Youngkin this summer.

“Immediately, it’s time to level up and take a look at the work that’s been done, that’s being done, and the work that needs to continue,” Balow said. “There are places where we need to do better as a Commonwealth.”

Lawmakers say 705 Virginia schools, or 38%, do not have a school resource officer (SRO), including 596 elementary schools, 30 middle schools, 30 high schools and 49 others.

Governor Youngkin backed a bill to require one in every building, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pushed back. Some argued that mental health resources should be prioritized over supplemental policing while others expressed concerns about creating an unfunded mandate for localities.

A watered-down version of the bill was eventually passed and will come into force on July 1. It requires schools that do not have an SRO to work with local law enforcement to designate an officer to undergo special training and serve as a point of contact.

Youngkin also proposed more than $50 million in additional one-time funding over two years for the state’s SRO grant fund. Budget negotiations are still ongoing, so it’s unclear whether his request will be successful.

Meanwhile, Balow asks the divisions what else the state can do to help schools meet the mental health needs of students, especially after traumatic events.

“We should never weigh law enforcement against mental health services. It’s a “yes, and” moment. Both are extremely important and must be priorities in our schools,” Balow said.

After Sandy Hook, Balow said the state created a grant program to help localities fund safety equipment upgrades, which was later expanded in 2019. She said the General Assembly doubled total annual grant program expenditures of $6 million to $12 million. The Legislature also increased the maximum compensation per school division from $100,000 to $250,000.

Balow said priority is given to schools based on need. She said the age of equipment, the number of offenses and a division’s ability to pay are all considered.

In 2021, the Virginia Department of Education reported reward grants to 1,861 schools, including 34 preschools, 1,155 elementary schools, 313 middle schools, 310 high schools, and 49 “coeducational schools.”

“What we know is that we don’t have enough money from school safety grants that are there to cover all the costs, but what we also know is that our local districts who have prioritized school safety and security found local funding,” Balow said.

In 2013, Balow said Virginia had become the first state in the nation to require schools to form threat assessment teams.

In addition to this, schools must have an up-to-date crisis management plan and conduct annual school safety audits.

Under bills passed earlier this year, law enforcement will be more involved in this process and each school will be required to create a detailed floor plan of each campus. School administrators and first responders will be able to use these digital maps in the event of an emergency.

The Department of Criminal Justice Services has made $6.5 million in grants available to help public schools develop digital floor plans. The program will fund up to $3,500 per public school.

Another bill requires physical education classes to provide seventh and eighth graders with at least one hour of personal safety training each school year, which will be delivered in partnership with local law enforcement. Training will include situational safety awareness and social media education.

“The best thing we can do at the state level is to listen and come up with a statewide framework with resources, ideas and training that every community can benefit from,” Balow said. .