BRIDGEWATER — Dels. Steve Landes and Tony Wilt believe Rockingham County Public Schools are safe.
On Tuesday, the two toured Turner Ashby High School and were joined by state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, in a visit around John Wayland Elementary School, discussing school safety concerns with school staff.
Landes, R-Weyers Cave, chairman of the House Education Committee, was appointed to the House Select Committee on School Safety, a special committee formed in March to study local and state school safety policies. This winter, that committee — which was created just weeks after the Feb. 14 school massacre in Parkland, Fla. — will make recommendations before the next legislative session.
The 22-member committee held its first meeting Thursday, and members will spend the next several months visiting local schools to learn about safety procedures, concerns and ways the legislature can help protect children.
Landes said after the tour that he was pleased to see a strong relationship between RCPS and the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office, something not all divisions in the commonwealth seem to have. Five school resource officers from the sheriff’s office work in the county schools, one in each high school and one at Massanutten Technical Center, said Superintendent Oskar Scheikl.
“I think the Valley schools … have really gone a long way to make sure their schools are safe,” Landes said. “They’re doing a lot, but there are some other things they want to do, and there may be some things the state could help with local government in funding.”
He thinks the committee likely will focus on school resource officers and ensuring funding and training are available for them.
Landes also is looking at mechanisms to secure buildings, such as cameras and door locks. He said he was happy to see that Rockingham County schools each have a secure vestibule that requires visitors to buzz into the office before they can enter the rest of the building. This allows staff to identify people before they’re allowed to walk into the school.
Committee members also are encouraging other lawmakers to learn more about the protocols in their schools, so everyone is better informed for the next session.
As a result, Landes invited Wilt, R-Broadway, and Obenshain to accompany him Tuesday.
Wilt said the division already has put major safety measures in place, and now will tweak policies and procedures to best protect its students and staff.
“I think our schools are in great shape,” he said. “It’s evident that our school administration are doing everything they can do within reason to protect our students.”
After the Parkland shooting, RCPS avoided knee-jerk reactions, such as arming teachers, Scheikl said. Instead, staff focused on proactive rather than reactive steps to avoid a similar crisis.
In the proposed 2019 fiscal budget, the division asked for funding for two crisis counselor positions, he said, which would help students feel welcome and deal with trauma or crises.
“That’s the long-term success strategy, to create environments where kids aren’t disconnected,” Scheikl said during the tour, “while still having the security measures ... if you were to need them. Hopefully, you never do.”
Jeremy Mason, the division’s safe-school coordinator, said RCPS is open to new ideas to improve safety. After a school shooting, staff look at their policies for ways to improve them.
None have been changed since the shooting.
“We don’t want to become complacent,” Mason said, “so we have lots of activities throughout the year to help keep that from happening.”
Scheikl said when he first heard about the committee, he was concerned that the focus would only be on technical security measures.
But the lawmakers’ visit Tuesday gave staff a chance to discuss the importance of providing flexibility to localities, recognizing that each school division will need different things to make its schools safer.
“That committee has a chance to see security measures across Virginia and they may see things that we’re simply not aware of,” Scheikl said. “There might be some of our practices that others aren’t aware of. That information-sharing is critical.”
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