By Olivia du Bois, ’22

The University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies sponsored a community panel discussion titled “Virginia School Safety Reform” on Oct. 16, 2019, bringing together experts from across the field to shed light on the current state of Virginia school safety. The panel covered a wealth of information including the Virginia legislative processes regarding school safety, security infrastructures, safety protocols, school counseling and mental health, and the role of school security personnel. 

This panel discussion topic originated with panel facilitator Beverley Cocke, an Educational Leadership & Policy Studies graduate student who spent a semester researching school safety for an independent study course. Cocke also served on the Henrico County Public Schools Board until November 2019. 

Dr. Kate Cassada, SPCS Associate Professor of Education and Assistant Chair of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, explained in an interview that the wealth of information Cocke uncovered during her studies and its relevance to the community made school safety a pertinent topic. Cassada said that the purpose of the Graduation Education Speaker Series is to present highly relevant information and generate a community conversation that promotes better understanding of that topic — a goal the school safety reform discussion fulfilled.

Four community members were chosen to form a diverse panel that could approach school safety with a variety of perspectives:

  • Christine Bailor, Emergency Manager, Office of School Safety and Emergency Management, Henrico County Public Schools
  • Kathy Burcher, Director, Government Relations and Research, Virginia Education Association
  • Timothy T. Carter, School Counseling Professional, Richmond Public Schools
  • James D. Christian, K-12 School Safety and Threat Assessment Supervisor, Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety, Department of Criminal Justice Services

To preface the discussion, Cassada noted that Virginia is on the leading edge in the country in promoting and implementing novel school safety practices. Cocke added that other states are attempting to model their own school safety policies after Henrico County.

The panel’s discussion focused on mental health as an approach to school safety, an idea that has gained traction in the eyes of the public in recent years. According to the VCU Wilder School’s Summer 2018 Public Policy Poll, 36% of Virginians (up from 27% in 2016) consider improvements to the mental health system to be the best approach to school safety, while 41% (down from 56% in 2016) instead support additional security measures.

All four panelists noted this shift, and the discussion focused on how attending to the social and emotional needs of students and building relationships changes the question from “how do we respond?” to “how do we prevent this from happening in the first place?”

Currently, each Virginia public school has a threat assessment team established by the superintendent and composed of people with expertise in counseling, instruction, school administration, human resources and law enforcement. These teams are responsible for the assessment of and intervention with people whose behavior may pose a threat to the safety of school staff or students. 

Often threat assessment is seen as a punitive rather than preventative function, Bailor said, noting that this mindset needs to change. Certified law enforcement officers at Virginia public schools are called school resource officers (SRO) and are one of the first points of contact available to students and faculty who are aware of a threat. The SRO-student relationships are extremely important, because if students trust the SROs, they are more likely to tell them about potential threats, Bailor explained. 

There is a pathway to violence that includes a whole series of steps students follow before committing an act of violence, Bailor said. Threat assessment is meant to identify where students are on that path, intervene and continue to monitor those students. It is not a punishment-based system. 

Relationships are key, because information about safety threats gets from students to adults through those relationships, Christian said. Students need adults that they can trust and confide in on the ground at schools, and school staff need to be aware of the resources available for deescalation. Often teachers do not know what threat assessment is, Burcher added. 

Aside from helping information about threats get passed on, these relationships can give students someone to talk to and get help from if they are undergoing trauma at home. When children undergo trauma at home, they learn the behaviors associated with that trauma and begin to repeat those behaviors at school, Carter said. 

As a school counseling professional, Carter sees this happen first-hand and emphasized to the audience how important this psycho-social focus is to school safety. When students have the right mental health support, they learn to manage their emotions rather than act out. Bailor noted that learning these skills applies further down the road when students are trying to navigate the real world. 

Having enough funding to provide these resources is another facet of the issue. About 3,000 trained school counselors are not working in schools, because they do not get enough compensation for the work they do, Burcher said. Schools are extremely underfunded, she said, impeding their ability to help students in meaningful ways by putting enough resources in place to foster those relationships. 

Audience members included SPCS and University of Richmond undergraduate students, community members, school employees, and several candidates who ran in the Nov. 5, 2019 elections. During the community conversation following the panel discussion, audience members asked questions and brought up points of their own, adding to the discussion. 

One audience member asked why gun safety had not been a large part of the discussion. Although it was mentioned, the panelists and facilitators did not directly address gun safety explaining that it is such a large issue, it would need a conversation all of its own. The panelists’ discussion and the following conversation were, in themselves, so involved that the event ran overtime. 

Cassada said she had been thrilled by the audience’s engagement with the panelists and topic.