Practice aligns with new recommendations from state legislators

Mass shootings at several American schools this year have prompted Albemarle County Public Schools to pilot a new approach to planning for emergencies.

Student services officer Nicholas King on Thursday presented the School Board with an update on the division’s new school safety reviews.

King said the 90-minute process is “a way to keep this work on the front burner for our administrators” outside of their usual planning during the summer months.

“This is our attempt to make school safety planning a more collaborative and inclusive process,” he said.

"The beauty of the process is that we get to identify challenges... while we have the opportunity to fix them,”

Nicholas King Student Services Officer, Albemarle County Public Schools

King said the school safety reviews include school administrators and staff members assigned to a school’s crisis management team. He said school resource officers attend the sessions in a listening role.

The review begins with a discussion of school climate data and current strategies for improving school climate. Next, school staffers have a chance to point out specific physical security concerns during a walkthrough of the school building.

Finally, in a tabletop exercise, participants discuss how the school would respond to a simulated emergency.

“They think about when exactly they would turn to a lockdown if that was appropriate, or when they would start to evacuate the building,” King said.

“The beauty of the process is that we get to identify challenges while we are sitting around this table; while we have the opportunity to fix them,” King said. “Hopefully, if we ever find ourselves in a scenario where we have to engage in one of these activities, we know how to do it efficiently and effectively.”

Safety reviews have been conducted this fall at the county’s three comprehensive high schools two middle schools and two elementary schools. Although the reviews are scheduled in three-year rotations, King said they are being completed more quickly than anticipated.

New safety recommendations

King said Albemarle’s safety review process happens to align with new recommendations from Virginia’s House Select Committee on School Safety, established in March in response to a school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

One of the committee’s recommendations is to “increase collaboration among the various stakeholders in school safety audits and crisis management planning.”

King said Albemarle will need more specific information to act on the “broad notions” expressed in the recommendations. However, he said he was encouraged by the committee’s strong focus on mental health services.

“That is something that will go a long way in helping schools and helping students beyond school safety,” King said.

The committee’s first recommendation is to realign the roles and responsibilities of school counselors to allow for more direct service to students.

Amy Wright, director of school counseling at Western Albemarle High School, said counselors at her school are lucky to have relatively manageable caseloads and additional support from Region Ten school psychologists. However, she said there is a particular need for improved counseling services at middle and elementary schools.

“Think of the things that wouldn’t be happening if you were able to catch situations and kids that are dealing with mental health issues at a younger age,” Wright said.

According to data from the 2018 Virginia School Climate Survey, 17 percent of high school students in Albemarle reported that they had seriously considered attempting suicide during the past year.

The select committee also recommended the General Assembly increase funding for the School Resource Officer Grants Program to pay for 44 new SRO positions across the state.

Anonymous reporting system

King also briefed School Board members on the division’s plans to purchase an anonymous reporting system for students. This software previously has been discussed in the context of the division’s forthcoming anti-racism policy.

“It’s about safety issues, but also things like discrimination, harassment and bullying,” said Superintendent Matt Haas.

The school system has issued a request for proposals from companies that provide these reporting systems. Haas said a principal has volunteered to pilot the system at their school.

“We are going to want to put a very solid plan in place before implementing this,” said Haas.

School Board member Katrina Callsen said she had reservations about sending information from the reporting system directly to law enforcement.

“That seems burdensome, and places disciplinary issues on a direct track [to law enforcement],” she said.

Haas said he would he would want reports to go to school administrators before they are brought to police.

“We need to be sensitive that this doesn’t negatively impact one of our enrollment groups,” he said.

Albemarle schools referred 125 students to law enforcement in 2015, according to federal data.

While black students made up 11 percent of the division’s enrollment that year, 26 percent of students who were referred to law enforcement were black.