Michele Cox and Kristen Martin have children who attend public schools and are volunteers with RVA Be Smart and MOMS Demand Action.
Since January, there was an average of about one school shooting for each week of the school year. This past spring, the Virginia General Assembly appointed a committee responsible for “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.”
However, since this committee was assembled, there has been only one meeting — on April 26. The committee is divided into three subcommittees: Infrastructure and Security, Student Behavior and Intervention, and Prevention and Response Protocol. To date, no subcommittee meetings have occurred; two are scheduled for mid-July. Recommendations are due to the General Assembly in November.
Preventing these tragedies will require a multifaceted approach:
● There should be programs implemented to prevent and respond to victims of bullying and discrimination.
● We should educate families about the importance of safe storage of firearms. Many acts of violence in school result from a weapon obtained from the student’s family. The Be Smart campaign is an excellent program to serve this purpose.
● Mental-health services need to be well funded to ensure that every school has a counselor and mental-health professionals. Since 2009, funding for support staff in Virginia schools has been stagnant. A decade later, Virginia has 13 percent fewer counselors. Yet we know that our population is growing, as are the emotional needs of students.
When House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) appointed the committee, he said he deeply cared about this issue and that school safety would be a “top priority” of the House of Delegates for the 2019 General Assembly. But he said guns would not be discussed because it is a partisan issue that would “distract the committee” from the important steps needed to keep our children safe. The one common denominator in school shootings is firearms. The decision to omit discussion about guns is irresponsible and negligent.
We need to do a better job of ensuring that guns do not end up in the wrong hands, which is what common-sense gun laws aim to do. We need to know that our children are safe at school. Our representatives have a responsibility to address this issue.
Virginia requires all schools to submit a safety audit, but it is an unfunded mandate, so schools in lower-income areas cannot meet the requirement. It is our duty to ensure the safety and well-being of all students, regardless of financial or emotional vulnerability.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes gun violence as a public-health issue and has long advocated for policies to address this issue. It recommends stronger gun laws, increased access to mental-health services and physician counseling about firearms.
Dels. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Richmond) and Jeffrey M. Bourne (D-Richmond), two members of the committee, recently pointed to the need to address violence in schools as a whole and the need to focus on providing more support staff as opposed to solely focusing on “hardening” schools. They also asserted that this committee would fall short of real solutions until the issue of guns is discussed. VanValkenburg held a town-hall meeting on school safety on June 14.
What actions have the rest of the committee members taken to address the issue of violence in schools? As citizens and concerned parents, we want to see concrete budgeting and recommendations for meaningful actions that would keep our children safe. We challenge our fellow Virginians to demand action on gun violence and school safety.