RICHMOND — Amid pressure to respond to last month’s school massacre in Florida, the Republican leader of Virginia’s House announced on Thursday the creation of a special committee that will focus on beefing up K-12 security but steer clear of gun issues.
Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (Colonial Heights) will appoint a select committee that will look for ways to make schools harder targets, including physical improvements such as bulletproof windows. Its mission would be to create a package of bills for the 2019 General Assembly session.
The approach might help Cox sidestep the most emotionally charged topics — restricting guns and arming teachers — that have been thrust into the spotlight since a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
It is unlikely to fully satisfy House Democrats, who nearly took control of the chamber in November elections and last week invoked Parkland as they called on Republicans to revive gun-control bills quashed in GOP-controlled committees.
Republicans said it was too late to do so.
“The Va House GOP wants to turn our schools into fortresses as secure as courtrooms and police station and the interior areas of airports just to avoid having a discussion about gun safety,” tweeted Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax).
Cox’s announcement came one day after Florida lawmakers passed legislation to impose a three-day waiting period for most purchases of long guns, raise the minimum age for buying them to 21 and create a program to train and arm some school employees.
Cox, a retired teacher whose party has two-seat majorities in the state House and Senate, would serve as chairman of the bipartisan panel.
It will begin meeting after the General Assembly session concludes Saturday.
Cox played up the rarity of creating a select committee — the first formed in the House in more than 150 years — as an indication of how deeply he cares about the issue. Select committees cross the jurisdictional lines of established committees and are “reserved for matters of considerable significance,” his announcement noted.
“We are taking a bold and significant step today to make school safety a top priority of the House of Delegates,” Cox said.
Some Democrats were underwhelmed by the gesture, given that Cox declared gun control outside the panel’s scope. Its work will be limited to “strengthening emergency preparedness, hardening school security infrastructure, 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,” Cox said in a letter to House Clerk G. Paul Nardo.
Those limits will prevent “more partisan issues” from distracting the panel members from “the important steps we must take to ensure that our children are safe in our public schools,” Cox said.
House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) and Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Charniele L. Herring (Alexandria) welcomed Cox’s invitation to study school safety, but said they were disappointed that gun control would not be part of the discussion.
“The issue of safety in schools is not a substitute for a greater conversation on gun violence, which is a crisis not just in our schools, but in spaces both public and private in communities throughout the nation,” Toscano and Herring said in a joint written statement.
The two announced plans to hold town hall meetings across the state to discuss gun violence and invited their GOP colleagues to join them.
“While we may have different views about how to diminish gun violence in America, there is bipartisan consensus in Virginia that we must redouble our efforts to address not just school safety, but also gun safety in America,” they said.