The school shooting in Parkland, Florida was horrific and tragic, and reminds us just how important it is to keep our children safe in our schools.
The House of Delegates led the effort in recent years to invest in school safety, providing over $30 million in funding to hire school resource officers and invest in security infrastructure, as well as passing legislation to allow local schools to hire retired law enforcement to protect our children.
In the wake of the Parkland tragedy, we recognize that we need to fully evaluate our policies on school safety to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep our children safe in school.
Speaker Cox is forming the Select Committee on School Safety to prioritize efforts to strengthen school security. The Committee’s work will be limited to strengthening emergency preparedness, hardening school security infrastructure, deploying additional security personnel, providing additional behavioral health resources for students, and developing prevention protocols at primary and secondary institutions across the Commonwealth.
We should focus our work on things that we can find common ground on, for example hardening school security infrastructure with buzz-in systems, metal detectors, blast doors, and cameras; providing behavioral health resources for students, making sure teachers are trained to recognize children in crisis; and deploying additional security personnel.
The Select Committee will make recommendations for consideration by the General Assembly during the 2019 General Assembly Session.
Select Committees are rare and reserved for matters of considerable significance that cross the jurisdiction of multiple committees. This is the first time in over 150 years that the House has formed a select committee.
To fully address this issue, we will need subject-matter expertise from House Committees on Education, Courts of Justice, Militia, Police & Public Safety, and Appropriations. The Speaker is appointing senior leaders with considerable expertise to work on finding solutions that keep our children safe.
We must ensure our students can learn in a safe environment without the fear of violence. I am proud of the steps we have taken in recent years to protect our schools, but there must be more we can do. The Select Committee is tasked with developing the next steps on this important issue.
Other states are taking major steps, and Virginia needs to remain at the forefront of efforts to protect our children while they are in school.
Florida’s Governor Rick Scott recently announced a $500 million investment in school safety enhancements including metal detectors, bulletproof glass, steel doors and upgraded locks. In Oklahoma, some school districts have installed bulletproof storm shelters that double as safe rooms. Southwestern High School in Indiana has been dubbed "the safest school in America." Its $400,000 safety system includes panic buttons for teachers, smoke cannons in hallways and real-time tracking of shooting suspects.
The Select Committee will focus its work on local K-12 school divisions. Many institutions of higher learning have already adopted rigorous security requirements and are governed by national accrediting agencies which set guidelines for school security.
The Speaker is forming the Select Committee because this is an area where we can find common ground. While many are pushing for stricter gun control laws, we believe we should focus on school safety. Virginia currently has strong laws against gun violence, and responsible gun safety laws that keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals while protecting the rights of law abiding citizens.
The House led the effort to make our school safer following the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook in 2012.
In 2013, the House passed HB 2343, creating the "School Security Infrastructure Improvement Fund" and "Local School Safety Fund." This recurring grant fund allows the Department of Criminal Justice Services to offer grants of up to $100,000 per locality and require a 25% local match. Localities are allowed to use the money to fund upgrades to school security like hallway cameras, buzz-in systems and automatic locks on classroom doors.
The 2013, 2014 and 2015 budgets appropriated approximately $6 million per year for school security infrastructure grants. In 2017, we passed legislation (HB 1392) to allow school systems to hire retired police officers for school security. This approach saved school systems money and made schools safer.
Gun violence is a serious problem. The House of Delegates is willing to have a serious and productive conversation on ways to keep criminals and those with behavioral health needs from getting guns. We’ve taken strong steps on those issues and will continue to discuss it.
Overly-broad efforts to take away the constitutional rights of law-abiding individuals is not the right approach. We are forming the Select Committee on School Safety because we believe we should make protecting our children a priority, not partisan fights over gun control.
The best way to combat gun violence right now—is to (a) enforce our existing laws, (b) strengthen and reform our mental health care system, (c) stand against efforts to weaken criminal sentences by bringing back parole, and (d) protect the rights of law-abiding citizens who simply want to protect themselves.
We can prevent gun violence by enforcing our existing laws. We have a strong system of background checks that includes a mental health database created after the 2007 tragedy at Virginia Tech. Virginia Law enforcement is ahead of the curve nationally when it comes to tracing firearms used in gun crimes. Our Commonwealth’s Attorneys should prosecute gun crimes to the full extent of the law. We must continue to give our law enforcement officers the funding and resources they need to enforce the law.
We know that there is a crisis that needs to be addressed. There are too many examples of faults in our mental health care system where people with serious mental health care needs are perpetuating tragedy. We need to close the gaps in our mental health care system. A Washington Post poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans (63%) believe that the focus should be on mental health solutions, not new gun laws. Republicans agree.
Nationwide, Democrats are pushing an effort to weaken crime laws, rollback criminal sentences and, here in Virginia, some are promoting bringing back parole. While they are trying to weaken all of these laws, they tell us we need stronger gun laws, most of which are targeted against law abiding citizens, not criminals. The guns aren’t the problem, the criminals are.
It is a privilege to represent you in the Virginia House of Delegates. I encourage you to keep in touch with me and my office. I will be spending the coming weeks meeting and visiting with various groups, businesses and constituents giving updates on the 2018 session. You can email me at [email protected] or call me at (804)698-1059. You can also join the conversation on our social media page www.facebook.com/DelegateMattFariss.