Albemarle County school officials met with Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, on Tuesday to contribute to the Virginia House of Delegates’ ongoing study of school safety issues.
Toscano is a member of the House Select Committee on School Safety. Established in March in response to a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the select committee is the first to be formed in the House in more than 150 years.
Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Chesterfield, said in a letter to the House Clerk that the committee’s scope is “…limited to implementing security best practices, deploying additional security personnel, providing additional behavioral health resources for students, and developing prevention protocols at primary and secondary institutions across the Commonwealth.”
Toscano and other members of the House Democratic Caucus have formed a separate task force called the Safe Virginia Initiative to study possible actions to reduce gun violence, such as universal background checks for firearm purchases.
“I think it’s really hard to deal with school safety without talking about guns,” Toscano said. “I’m glad to participate on the committee, but I think a lot of us in the legislature want to have a broader focus on gun violence. There are a lot of [assault rifles] out there, and some people shouldn’t have them.”
Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, will also serve on the select committee. In an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow, Landes said including gun violence in the committee’s scope would limit its ability to make meaningful recommendations for next year’s General Assembly.
“The Speaker wants to see this Committee be impactful and get things done,” Landes said. “As soon as guns are interjected into the discussion, the issue quickly becomes partisan and it becomes much more difficult to find common ground.”
“By focusing on security and funding, we will return to the General Assembly in 2019 with concrete proposals to make our schools safer,” Landes said.
Landes said he planned to visit schools in his district—which includes part of Albemarle County— to learn about security measures already in place and identify areas for improvement.
Toscano visited Albemarle High School and Baker-Butler Elementary School on Tuesday to learn about safety protocols at both ends of the K-12 spectrum.
“I think there is a heightened awareness [at the high school level] about mental health concerns, to try to identify kids who are having challenges so they don’t act out and really hurt people badly,” Toscano said. “In elementary schools, it’s different; you are more worried about the person who comes into the school to hurt people.”
Toscano noted that Baker-Butler recently had its main entrance reconfigured to direct all visitors to the school office before they can access the rest of the building. The new entrance at Baker-Butler and similar projects at three other schools were funded with $2.9 million from Albemarle County’s $35 million bond referendum in 2016.
Stephen Saunders, principal of Baker-Butler, said elementary school administrators also are focused on social and emotional difficulties facing students, and are prepared to handle mental health issues.
Saunders said Baker-Butler has enrolled increasing numbers of refugees and children living in poverty— student populations that are more likely to be subjected to traumatic events outside of school. Baker-Butler had 171 students receiving free and reduced-price lunches in September, up from 144 in the fall of 2016.
Saunders said school counselors, psychologists and nurses have helped Baker-Butler students of all backgrounds cope with divorce or illness in their family, the military deployment of a parent, and other hardships in their home lives.
“With 650 students here, there’s a big enough sample size to include all those situations,” Saunders said.
Saunders said it was important to focus on these everyday struggles instead of rare acts of violence. “At any level [of schooling], there is a danger of gravitating to the most extreme cases, and building everything around that,” he said.
County schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said the division would ask state legislators to lobby for the addition of mental health professionals to the Virginia Standards of Quality. The Standards outline staffing requirements for which Virginia school districts can receive state funding to ensure they are met.
Saunders said relationships between teachers and students are a school’s most important safety asset. He said being assigned to a single teacher in elementary school has benefits and downsides for children.
“When you have seven or eight teachers [in high school], the chances of having strong connections with two, three or four of them may be higher,” Saunders said. He added that middle and high schools offer clubs, sports and other activities that expand opportunities to bond with teachers and fellow students.
Toscano said he also believed that these relationships could do more to promote school safety than security infrastructure.
“Sometimes, when we talk about school security, it’s all about locks on the doors and shatterproof glass. But so much of it is how kids relate to their teachers, to each other, and the administration,” he said. “You can always ‘harden’ a school so that nobody can get in. But when you make a school a prison, it is no longer a school.”
Toscano has scheduled visits to Greenbrier Elementary and Charlottesville High School next week to meet with city school officials.
Some local high school students are expected to leave their schools at 10 a.m. Friday to protest against gun violence. Thousands of students engaged in a related walkout protest on March 14 by leaving class for 17 minutes and then returning.
School officials in Albemarle and Charlottesville have said students will be marked absent if they leave school early.