Do Virginia schools need more guns? That question is at the heart of a debate that’s now reaching a fever pitch in the commonwealth, especially after a man with a Bushmaster assault rifle blasted his way into a Connecticut elementary school and killed 20 children and six adults before killing himself. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell responded to the tragedy by creating a School Safety Task Force, which is considering a proposal for every school in Virginia to have an armed school resource officer.
“I fear that’s the direction they’re going,” said Arlington Del. Patrick Hope (D-47), who is a member of the task force. “I would like to see more resources going to mental health treatment.”
“I would like to see more resources going to mental health treatment.”
—Del. Patrick Hope (D-47)
State Sen. Richard Stuart (R-28) of Montross, also a member of the task force, has already introduced legislation that would require every school board in Virginia to provide at least one school resource officer for every public elementary, middle and high school within the district. The cost of hiring 1,046 new officers and funding a statewide program would be about $65 million a year if all the school resource officers are full-time. The new standardized system would replace the current patchwork of approaches taken from jurisdiction, with some positions full-time and others part-time.
“It varies from place to place,” said Fairfax County state Sen. George Barker (D-39), who is also a member of the task force. “Some places, they are police officers and other places they are simply a security guard officer that’s not a member of the police department.”
THE STAKES are high in Virginia, where the memory of the Virginia Tech massacre is still a fresh tragedy. The governor launched the task force in the hothouse environment of the General Assembly, which means fast action or no action. McDonnell has already signaled that he wants the task force to issue recommendations at the end of January. That means legislators who already have a full slate of bills to introduce have to do double duty to meet the expedited timeline.
“I am confident this group will develop thoughtful recommendations that will ensure a safe learning environment for our students,” said McDonnell in a written statement. “As a commonwealth, we must evaluate safety in our schools and ensure recommendations that will ensure safe learning environment of our students.”
The governor has signaled that he would like to see an increase of armed school-resource officers in schools across Virginia, and he has indicated that more than $30 million could be available to implement the recommendations of the task force. Although the task force will not be considering gun control, many stakeholders indicated that they would like to see the gun-show loophole closed.
“This is a problem long overdue to be fixed,” said Anne Carson, president of the Virginia Parent Teacher Association in written statement. “We are encouraged by Governor McDonnell’s plan to convene a task force on school safety and will use the opportunity to reinforce our members’ belief in gun-free schools and direct the focus to problems within the mental health system to provide individuals the help so desperately needed.”
FOR NOW, the debate is about how many school resource officers should be protecting schools in Virginia. Hope said that’s a difficult question to answer because school-resource officers are already present in a majority of schools in Arlington — including the elementary school his children attend. But he’s quick to add that the task force has been presented with a question of priorities, and he feels that addressing the mental health priorities of Virginia is much more important than paying for an armed officer guarding every schoolhouse.
“I’m talking to principals who don’t have them, and they don’t have them for a reason,” said Hope. “They don’t think they are necessary.”
The proposal now under consideration, Senate Bill 940, would cost Virginia about $69,000 for each full-time school resource officer. It would also create two new positions in the Department of Criminal Justice Services to handle the increased workload associated with training the additional officers. Earlier this week, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill that would facilitate the hiring of retired police officers to work as school resource officers.
“We worked out an arrangement so that they could work as school resource officers without it impacting the retirement system,” said Barker, “either for them or for the system as a whole.”