Democratic report on school safety emphasizes mental health, gun safety

virginia house democratsThe House Democratic Caucus has released a minority report in response to the House Select Committee on School Safety’s final report and recommendations.

In the minority report, House Democrats commend the committee for its successes and address its shortcomings.

“The formation of the Select Committee was a historic and necessary step to protect our students, educators, and school staff,” said House Democratic Leader David Toscano and Caucus Chair Charniele Herring in a joint statement. “However, House Democrats said from the beginning that we must focus on mental health and confront issues of gun violence, no matter how difficult. We felt it was our duty to present a minority response, because Virginians across the Commonwealth share our concerns and understand the magnitude of this issue. At the end of the day, what matters is the legislation we pass, not the report that we write.”

The select committee was formed in March 2018, after House Democrats pushed for safety legislation in the wake of the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The House Speaker appointed 12 Republicans and 10 Democrats, and as chair, announced that the committee would not address gun violence prevention. Democrats continued to advocate for common-sense gun safety in the select committee, as well as established the Safe Virginia Initiative to discuss gun violence issues.

Democratic Delegates Schuyler VanValkenburg, Jeff Bourne, and Mike Mullin were the first members to make recommendations to the committee, which they proposed in a memo in July. The memo drew from their expertise in school and youth safety – Delegate VanValkenburg is a teacher, Delegate Bourne is a former two-term school board member, and Delegate Mullin is a former prosecutor with a focus on juvenile courts. Some of their proposals were included in the committee’s final report, such as the memorandums of understanding between schools and police, but many others were not, including increasing the ratio of students to school counselors and ways to keep minors from unauthorized access to firearms.

“Above all, we have to frame school safety in a student-centered, rather than an institutions-centered approach,” said Delegate VanValkenburg. “If the focus is infrastructure like bullet-proof dry-erase boards, then we’re essentially only trying to decrease the extent of the damage. When we instead emphasize students’ mental health and well-being, then we are solving the root causes and preventing unsafe situations from ever happening.”

Delegate Bourne added, “We have to allocate our limited resources to where they will have the most impact. Time and again, we heard from parents, students, and educators that mental health resources, particularly school counselors, would make the biggest difference.”

In addition to House Democrats’ recommendations on student mental health, they also make several common-sense proposals to prevent minors from accessing firearms, including a youth risk protection order that would secure guns away from minors who have been deemed to be at serious risk of hurting themselves or others.

“When our children stand up and demand solutions to gun violence in schools, it’s past time to take action,” said Delegate Mullin. “Mass shootings are an unacceptable tragedy, but that’s not even the full extent of the issue – we are also losing too many students to suicide and domestic homicides with firearms. We cannot keep ignoring gun violence because it’s controversial.”

The full recommendations in the House Democrats’ minority report include:

  • Improve the state’s staffing standards for school counselors by requiring one school counselor for every 250 students (k-12)
  • Request House Appropriations Committee to examine strategies to unwind the cap on support staff positions and develop a potential timeline
  • Increase support for existing prevention/intervention programs like Virginia Tiered Systems of Support (VTSS) and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) to increase school division participation and assure fidelity to standards
  • Presently, under Virginia law, minors under 14 must be supervised by an adult while using handguns and those 15 through 17 cannot possess handguns outside of receiving one as a gift from a family member or using one for sporting activities. We think these provisions should be extended to all firearms.
  • Virginia should impose civil and/or criminal liability for improper storage of a handgun or other weapon which allows a minor access to the weapon. Virginia’s CAP laws are among the weakest in the nation, only giving criminal liability to adults who deliberately and recklessly grant a minor access to a weapon.
  • Virginia has no reporting standards for lost and stolen weapons. We should implement basic reporting standards for lost and stolen weapons held by private owners.
  • Establish a youth risk protection order for minors who are deemed to be a risk to themselves or others.

Click here for the full minority report.

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