As Virginia’s elementary, middle and high school students begin the 2022-2023 year, Attorney General Jason Miyares said safety and security are at the top of his — and parents’ — list of priorities.
“You’re entrusting that school, when you drop that child off, to keep the most precious thing in the world safe,” Miyares said to Fauquier County school and public safety leaders before a closed-door safety and security roundtable, as part of a special session convened by the School Board.
Shortly after the 2018 mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida, “students were very interested and concerned about their own safety, and wanted to know what we were doing to keep them safe, and that really hit home with all of us,” Fauquier County Public School Superintendent David Jeck said.
Shortly before the security roundtable, Jeck told WTOP the school system “has been adding a layered approach to school safety,” which includes adding armed school security officers and school resource officers, redesigning vestibules to upgrade safety features, and introducing a Raptor system, which immediately notifies law enforcement in a security emergency.
“Every one of our schools has at least an armed SSO (school security officer) or SRO (school resource officer),” Jeck said. “Our high schools have both. Each of them is trained, and either current or former law enforcement.”
The school system has also instituted a youth mental health first aid program focusing on emotional safety — in which trained and certified staff wear a purple lanyard.
“We’re training over 500 staff to know what questions to ask, what signs to look for, and then who to direct the students too,” said Jeck.
Bad actors ‘don’t always make headlines’
Before the School Board entered the closed session, Miyares spoke briefly about the role of school officers, and touched on safety and security precautions to deal with addiction, mental health issues and gangs.
“We see in our schools a variety of other bad actors that don’t always make headlines,” Miyares said. “Anyone who has ever dealt with addiction or depression, they’ll tell you that social isolation is the single worst box you can ever put them in.”
With two years of COVID-19 dramatically affecting in-person schooling, the attorney general said principals tell him students are dealing with the fallout.
“We’re seeing a mental health crisis, unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” Miyares said. “As we get through this period where we return to normalcy, we are seeing that impact on mental health, and we’re seeing it in our kids.”
Miyares: SROs a ‘frontline barrier’
Miyares expressed support for armed school resource officers: “The more we have them, the better,” he said.
Citing previous school shootings in other states, he said some of the perpetrators “go where they think they create the most destruction and mayhem, and school resource officers can give a kind of frontline barrier.”
The benefits of armed officers, Jeck said, goes beyond the ability to confront an assailant.
“They build great relationships with kids that head off a lot of problems,” Jeck said. “If [students] see these [officers] as people they can trust, and who are there to protect and help them, they will share information with them.”
Conversely, the officers know the youngsters: “They’re able to see a kid might be a little off that day, and something’s not right,” said Jeck. “They’re able to communicate with them, and connect with them, and perhaps help them — that is critically, critically important.”
Gov. Glenn Youngkin “has funded several hundred additional school resource officers from around the state,” said Miyares. “And every locality’s going to face their own budget challenges, so local schools are going to have to see what their challenges are, and their funding priorities.”
“I think most Virginians — on both sides — can see the need for them, and I’d like to see more of them in our schools,” Miyares added.
According to Jeck, “Implementing something like what we’re doing here, statewide at all the school divisions, I think would be money very, very well spent.”
Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org