School safety panel will be ‘reasonable’

Whitney Spicer and Blake Belden
Capital News Service

Ryan Murphy
News Editor

Members of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s School and Campus Safety Task Force vowed Monday that their recommendations on keeping Virginia’s schools safe would be based on fact and not emotion.

Among those serving on the task force is Charles Klink, VCU’s assistant vice provost and vice president for student affairs. The task force – charged with evaluating the safety of schools and campuses throughout the state – was assembled by McDonnell in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last month in Newtown, Conn.

“I thought in the wake of that terrible tragedy, it would be prudent to get all of our leading experts from all disciplines together to gather around a table or two, and talk about what can we do better,” McDonnell said.

After a gunman shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary, some called for immediate measures, like banning assault weapons or placing armed personnel in schools.

Klink noted that after the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, in which 32 students and faculty were killed in an attack by a disturbed student, many practices went into effect or were codified in the Commonwealth, including things like threat assessment teams.

“A lot of the legislation that came out around (the Virginia Tech shootings) kind of reinforced best practices that were already occurring, so I think any time there’s an event like Sandy Hook or Tech or Colorado, one of the positives is that I think it refocuses people on taking a look at what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it and if there’s any gaps,” Klink said.

This is the first time Klink has been involved in a task force like this. He said that the group would be looking around the world to identify further ways to protect campuses from acts of violence.

“Initially, there might be some attention paid to things that aren’t mandated through code or other kinds of regulations that should be,” he said. “And then more globally, are there best practices that we may be able to incorporate in K-12 or higher ed that aren’t incorporated across the board or across institutions.”

He noted that having had a tragedy akin to the Sandy Hook incident in our own state means that many institutions have already instituted preventative and early warning efforts. He points to VCU’s on-campus sirens, in-classroom alert systems, text and email alerts as well as the school’s threat assessment team.

“I do feel fundamentally that Virginia in some ways is ahead of the curve because there’s been a lot of trainings and a lot of educational efforts to help people at universities and colleges about these issues and how to prepare and how to respond,” Klink said.

McDonnell issued an executive order creating the task force on Dec. 20, just six days after the Sandy Hook shootings. He appointed members to the task force last week. It has 45 members, ranging from teachers, law enforcement officials, mental health practitioners to legislators, parents and students.

Marla Decker, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and a co-chair of the task force, said the group’s recommendations would not be reactionary but rather based on data, analysis and evidence.

“We must take a reasonable, methodical approach to school and campus safety,” Decker said. “This doesn’t mean that the task force should not think creatively – it should. But we must take a logical approach to sending recommendations to the governor and to the General Assembly.”

Another task force member is state Delegate Margaret Ransone, R-Kinsale, a mother of two.

“I think that being a mom and wanting to make sure that our children are safe will absolutely play a part,” she said. “I have an 11-year-old and a 7-year-old, both in public schools. But because of the oath I took, my decisions will be fully based on the information that we have.”

The task force will have three main subgroups: education, mental health and public safety. These subgroups will work together to produce the most effective results, Decker said.

Klink said working groups focusing on different aspects of school safety, from education and public safety to mental health, will face a quick turnaround for their initial recommendations — the Governor is requesting the first set by Jan. 31 — to take advantage of legislators being together in Richmond for the General Assembly’s 2013 session. The education work group that Klink is serving on will have it’s first meeting on Jan 17.

The task force is scheduled to issue a final report by June.

McDonnell apologized to the panel for the tight deadlines. But he said time was of the essence.

“I think that we have a very important duty to make sure in our education system, K-12 or university, every person has the ability to work hard and gain access to the American dream and to do it in a safe and secure environment,” McDonnell said.

On Jan. 15, VCU’s Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration David Hanson advised VCU community members in an email to review materials on how to respond to an active shooter situation. Included in the email were a Department of Homeland Security pamphlet and a video entitled “Run, Hide, Fight.”

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