Virginia governor’s school-safety task force puts forward initial recommendations

RICHMOND — A task force appointed by Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to find ways to improve school safety after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. issued an initial set of recommendations on Thursday, including stiffer, mandatory jail terms for illegal gun buyers, restoring funds for putting police officers in schools, and broadening efforts to deal with mental illness.

Following a meeting here Thursday, the Governor’s Taskforce on School and Campus Safety sent forward 24 proposals for the Virginia General Assembly to consider. Among them was finding money to deploy school resource officers, whose funding was eliminated for the past seven years because of budget cuts.

The panel also voted to increase the penalties for “straw buyers.” These are people whose clean records allow them to purchase firearms from a licensed dealer on behalf of someone whose criminal record or history of serious mental illness disqualifies them from owning guns.

Under current law, a straw buyer could be charged with a Class 6 felony carrying a penalty of one to five years in prison, or a Class 5 felony of one to 10 years. The task force proposed increasing the penalties for all straw purchases and add a one-year mandatory prison term for the purchaser and a 10-year mandatory penalty for the ineligible recipient if the transaction involved multiple firearms.

The task force also urged the General Assembly to expand access to outpatient clinicians and child psychiatrists and expand existing suicide prevention programs.

Other suggestions advanced by the panel include: extending immunity from civil litigation to any person, such as a school teacher, who reports in good faith that another person poses a potential danger; ease the sharing of juvenile records between schools and criminal justice officials; mandate at least one lockdown drill at the beginning of every fall and spring semester; and improve educators’ training to prevent bullying in schools.

The governor appointed the panel after a gunman killed 27 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The task force is made up of educators, public safety experts, local leaders, mental health practitioners, legislators, parents and students who are conducting a sweeping review of school safety issues.

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