RICHMOND — Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow is reaching out to Virginia school division superintendents for their views on what additional school safety measures the state should take in the wake of the tragedy yesterday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
“All Virginia educators, students and parents are grieving today. Our hearts are broken and the Uvalde community is in our prayers,” Balow said. “As we grieve for the innocent children and teachers who died in this evil and senseless act, we must also review all of the facts as they come to light and determine what additional steps we can take to protect our students and faculty members — and everyone who visits one of our 2,381 schools and local and regional programs.”
Campbell County Superintendent Robert Johnson told Balow this morning that following the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting, school board members, county supervisors and the sheriff’s office made it a priority to station a school resource officer in every county school.
“Our school resource officers are part of the fabric of our school communities — I can’t imagine our schools without them,” Johnson said. “Our commitment to having an officer in every school has never wavered. I have not received a single phone call from someone wanting to remove SROs from any of our 14 schools. Our school resource officers protect students. We do not use SROs for school discipline issues.”
As the state superintendent and Johnson continued their discussion, Johnson received a social media message from a mother whose children attend Tomahawk Elementary in the county.
“Dropping my kids off at school this morning I pay particular notice to their school resource officer, feeling very grateful he is there on a daily basis,” she said. “I see him every morning greeting the kids in the carpool line and holding little ones’ hands, walking them into the building. Thank you Deputy Glass for all you do for our babies. Every school needs one of you.”
Captain Michael Lawhorn of the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office told Balow that school resource officers and investigators respond immediately to threats on social media and from other sources.
“This includes making sure our SROs are visible in their assigned schools, deploying additional officers, and sending officers to speak with students — and their parents — alleged to have engaged in threatening behavior,” Lawhorn said. Lawhorn and Johnson said that county school and law enforcement officials review the division’s threat-assessment protocols after every incident.
In 2013, Virginia became the first state in the nation to require K-12 schools to establish threat assessment teams. Schools in the commonwealth are also required to maintain updated crisis management plans and conduct annual school security audits.
School leaders and law enforcement officers who met with Balow also stressed the importance of the School Security Equipment Grants program that the General Assembly created in 2013 in the wake of Sandy Hook.
The 2019 General Assembly doubled the total annual appropriation for the grant program from $6 million to $12 million. The legislature also increased the maximum award per school division from $100,000 to $250,000.
The criteria for making the awards give priority to schools most in need of modern security equipment, schools with relatively high numbers of offenses, schools with equipment needs identified by a school security audit and schools in divisions least able to afford security upgrades.
Johnson told Balow that the grant program provided the resources needed to install security vestibules and cameras in all Campbell County schools.
The state superintendent is also asking divisions about what additional state resources and supports would help local schools address students’ mental health needs, especially following traumatic events.
Balow will present her findings to Governor Glenn Youngkin this summer.
“I look forward to additional conversations with school leaders and law enforcement in communities so we can capture security concerns and ideas from a cross section of Virginia’s school divisions, including urban and suburban divisions, and divisions most dependent on state support for keeping students and faculty safe."