Free Lance-Star reporter Amy Umble covers Stafford County schools and other education issues
Virginia principals react to Newtown tragedy
The Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals (VASSP), the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals (VAESP) and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS) appreciate Governor McDonnell’s effort to begin a dialogue that focuses on school safety and areas for improvement in security in light of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. All principals and superintendents are aware that security in Virginia’s schools is an everyday concern, and not something to be discussed solely after a horrific tragedy like the events that occurred in Connecticut.
The VASSP, VAESP and VASS are willing to participate in any discussion that has the potential to make our schools safer places for students and staff. We are concerned, however, with the Governor’s interest in permitting staff to carry firearms as a possible deterrent to violence in schools. We believe the problem is more complex and the conversation needs to encompass other and more diverse solutions beginning with defining the roles of School Resource Officers and assistant principals and increasing both positions for which the funding was cut in previous state budget actions by the General Assembly.
Ben Kiser, VASS President and Superintendent of Gloucester County Schools stated, “We cannot and should not turn our schools into fortresses.” He continued, “Effective prevention cannot wait until there is a gunman in a school parking lot; we need resources such as School Resource Officers, assistant principals, mental health supports and threat assessment teams in every school and community so that people can seek assistance when they recognize that someone is troubled and requires help.”
Other options that need to be explored include the use of additional support staff or non-classroom personnel who may serve as the “eyes and ears” of schools. The funding for these positions has also been cut by the General Assembly. Also, school construction funds could potentially be used to encourage local school divisions to address security. Many older buildings and facilities were constructed prior to the current guidelines and regulations.
Finally, by updating the Virginia Standards of Quality, one principal must be required in each building. In addition, one assistant principal needs to be required for schools with enrollments of 400 or more and not at the current staffing level of 600 or more.
According to Carolyn Bernard, past President of VASSP and principal ofGrassfieldHigh School in Chesapeake, “Our children deserve better … and with continuous cuts, existing staff are being forced to try to accomplish much more with less. It is becoming difficult to focus on developing relationships and encouraging engagement with students.”
VASSP, VAESP and VASS agree that school safety issues are deep-rooted and complex. Research supports a thoughtful approach to safer schools that goes beyond the boundaries of our school yards and involves a balanced approach to preventing violence and protecting students through a variety of efforts that address physical safety, educational practices, and programs that support the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students. The solutions must involve parents, teachers, administrators, health professionals, elected representatives and others because maintaining a safe and secure environment for our children is a paramount concern to all Virginians and to the nation.