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School safety task force begins work

BY CHELYEN DAVIS

RICHMOND—Gov. Bob McDonnell said he’s asking lawmakers to hold off on spending more than $32 million in unappropriated money until after his new school safety task force makes its initial recommendations.

The task force held its first meeting Monday in Richmond, and is expected to come up with some proposals within three weeks.

McDonnell, in a letter submitting his budget amendments to the General Assembly Friday, said he hopes to use part of a $32.7 million unappropriated balance to pay for “whatever resources are necessary to fund specific recommendations” before the next school year begins.

McDonnell set up the task force after last month’s school shooting in Connecticut. It includes heads of a variety of state agencies and boards, experts in education and mental health, and several lawmakers, including Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford, Sen. Tom Garrett, R–Louisa and Del. Margaret Ransone, R–Kinsale.

The task force is supposed to review safety at Virginia’s public schools, focusing on any areas where schools could improve safety and budget items that may need more funding to enhance safety.

The group’s first deadline is Jan. 31 because McDonnell wants a chance to seek General Assembly approval for initial recommendations or budget amendments.

State Secretary of Public Safety Marla Decker called it “a very aggressive schedule” and said members of the task force and its work groups will meet frequently through the end of the month.

They’ll also take public comment, she said, both at meetings and online. Online comments can be submitted through state websites.

Decker told task force members that they must stay focused on the relatively narrow mandate for the group—to look at ways to improve school safety. The group’s meetings are not, she said, “the place for larger policy discussions” like gun control or education funding.

McDonnell and other lawmakers have said they’ll weigh whether more school resource officers—who are law enforcement officers assigned to schools—are needed.

The cost of that, however, could be dampening. McDonnell said he’s heard it could cost $100 million to $150 million to put a school resource officer in every school.

He said he wants the task force to give him its best recommendations, and then he will weigh what’s doable.

For its first meeting, the task force heard reports on school safety programs and resources in Virginia, and on mental health issues.

Donna Michaelis, school and campus safety manager for the Virginia Center for School Safety in the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services, said Virginia is already viewed as a leader in school safety.

Schools, she said, are “statistically one of the safest places you can be.”

Between 2005 and 2011, she said, only three-tenths of 1 percent of all state homicides were in schools. More than 50 percent of those homicides were in the home.

Michaelis said that 100 percent of Virginia schools have safety audits, and have written crisis management plans. Ninety-seven percent had practiced that plan in 2012.

Forty-seven percent of schools, she said, have at least a part-time school resource officer; more than 500 of them have a full-time school resource officer.

Fifty-three percent of all schools in Virginia reported having a controlled access system, and most said they lock exterior doors during the school day.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is a member of the task force.

Asked by reporters about proposals to allow teachers or other school personnel to be armed, he said lawmakers and task force members should “be open to that discussion.”

He also said that while gun laws aren’t really part of the discussion of school safety, he does think state leaders should consider looking at how Virginia handles concealed weapons permits.

State law requires those applying for a permit to go through a training program, but doesn’t require that that training involve handling a weapon. Current law allows the training course to be taken online.

“There never was a gun-handling requirement for a concealed weapon permit,” Cuccinelli said. “I think that is worth looking at.”

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245

cdavis@freelancestar.com

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