RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration is taking a second look at school security after the second deadliest school shooting on record.
Following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, Virginia increased security resources and requirements.
Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said a similar reckoning will follow the tragic death of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Texas.
In an interview on Thursday, Balow said she is already seeking feedback from local school divisions. She said she’ll present findings from these conversations to Gov. Youngkin this summer.
“Immediately it is time to just level set and take a look at the work that has been done, that’s being done now and the work that needs to continue,” Balow said. “There are some places where we need to do better as a Commonwealth.”
Lawmakers say 705 schools in Virginia, or 38%, don’t have a school resource officer (SRO), including 596 elementary schools, 30 middle schools, 30 high schools and 49 others.
Gov. Youngkin backed a bill to require one in every building but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pushed back. Some argued mental health resources should be prioritized over additional police while others raised concerns about creating an unfunded mandate for localities.
A watered-down version of the bill ultimately passed and will take effect July 1. It requires schools that don’t have an SRO to work with local law enforcement to designate an officer to get 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 underway so it’s not clear if his request will make the cut.
Meanwhile, Balow is asking divisions what else the state can do to help schools meet the mental health needs of students, especially after traumatic events.
“We should never be weighing law enforcement against mental health services. This is 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 security equipment upgrades, which was later expanded in 2019. She said the General Assembly doubled the total annual spending for the grant program from $6 million to $12 million. The legislature also increased the maximum award 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 taken into account.
In 2021, the Virginia Department of Education reported rewarding grants to 1,861 schools, including 34 preschools, 1,155 elementary schools, 313 middle schools, 310 high schools and 49 “combined schools.”
“What we know is we don’t have enough money through the school security grants that are out there to cover all of the cost, but what we also know is that our local districts that have prioritized school safety and security have found local funds,” Balow said.
In 2013, Balow said Virginia became the first state in the nation to require schools to form threat assessment teams.
On top of that, schools must have an up-to-date crisis management plan and conduct annual school security audits.
Under bills passed earlier this year, law enforcement will be more involved in that 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 during emergencies.
The Department of Criminal Justice Services has made $6.5 million in grants available to assist public schools in the development of digital floor plans. The program will fund up to $3,500 per public school.
Another bill requires physical education classes to offer students in grades seven and eight at least one hour of personal safety training every school year, which will be delivered in partnership with local law-enforcement. The training will include situational safety awareness and social media education.
“The best thing we can do at the state level is to listen and set forth a statewide framework with resources and ideas and training that every single community can take advantage of,” Balow said.