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Grants for more school resource officers urged

BY CHELYEN DAVIS

House Speaker Bill Howell and House Republican leaders say they’ll propose budgeting grant money to help put school resource officers in elementary schools.

Their announcement comes in the wake of last Friday’s school shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that killed 20 children and six adults.

“The tragedy in Connecticut is heartbreaking. As the Newtown community begins a healing process that will last longer than we can ever imagine, our thoughts naturally turn to our own children,” Howell, R-Stafford, said in a written statement. “We must look closely at everything we can to make sure our children, schools and communities are safe. This includes evaluating school safety, our mental health laws and services, and our gun laws.”

Howell—along with House Majority Leader Del. Kirk Cox and Del. Beverly Sherwood, who heads up the House Appropriations committee’s public safety subcommittee—said their proposal would expand the existing grant program currently used to fund school resource officers in middle and high schools. Howell called it “a critical step toward making sure all of our schools are as safe as possible.”

In the statement, Sherwood said while 80 percent of the state’s high and middle schools have an assigned school resource officer, only 25 percent of elementary schools do.

According to the Virginia School Resource Officer Program’s website, school resource officers are “the uniformed, armed and sworn officers and deputies of local police departments and sheriffs’ offices who are assigned, primarily, to Virginia’s middle and high schools.”

Republicans aren’t the only ones eyeing more school resource officers; Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe made a similar proposal earlier this week.

“These officers are professionals who are specifically trained to respond to dangerous situations and would be available to deal with any threat our children might face,” McAuliffe said in a release. “The cost for the commonwealth to fund such a program would be manageable considering that many schools sharing facilities may already be covered, federal funds are available, and it is of course the decision of each school whether to pursue this option.”

The Connecticut shooting has prompted a variety of responses from elected officials, from calls for more gun control to suggestions of arming teachers and principals.

Gov. Bob McDonnell said Tuesday that the idea of allowing teachers or other school officials to carry weapons should be part of the discussion.

On Thursday, several education groups—the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals (VASSP), the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals (VAESP) and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS)—put out a statement saying they’d oppose that idea.

But the three groups do want to see more school resource officers and more funding for staff.

“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,” the three groups said in a statement. “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.”

The groups’ statement also suggested funding to upgrade aging schools to keep pace with newer security guidelines, and to revise staffing standards to require an assistant principal at schools with 400 or more students, instead of the current threshold of 600 students.

“We cannot and should not turn our schools into fortresses,” said Gloucester County school superintendent and VASS President Ben Kiser. “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.”

In an annual school safety report, most recently filed for 2011, 513 schools reported having a school resource officer at the school all day, and a few of those had more than one. Many schools also reported having school security officers—which are different from resource officers—stationed at the school all day.

The annual safety reports don’t break down the number of school resource officers by locality. A 2007 survey did.

Among local divisions in the 2007 survey, Spotsylvania County had 12 school resource officers; Stafford County had seven; Culpeper County had five; Louisa and Orange counties had three; Fredericksburg, Caroline, King George and Westmoreland each had two.

 Chelyen Davis:  540/368-5028

cdavis@freelancestar.com

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