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Resource Officers, Mental Health Dominate Town Hall on School Safety

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, hosted the event Thursday at Wakefield High School

A statewide task force created in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre is considering recommendations that would require additional training for school resource officers and require the state to help schools prevent bullying.

Another recommendation would require Virginia schools to conduct an annual "active shooter exercise" that includes students or to incorporate parts of an active shooter plan into other drills.

That's just three areas the Governor's School and Campus Safety Task Force could make recommendations on as early as this week.

State Del. Patrick Hope, an Arlington Democrat who sits on the task force, said he wants the group to make recommendations that will have an actual effect and "not just things to make you feel good."

Hope held a town hall Wednesday night at Wakefield High School. About 65 people attended, many of them parents of students in Arlington Public Schools, to ask questions and offer feedback on some of the state task force's proposals.

The night also seemed to release the valve on some of the tension that's developed since the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., and the emotional debates that have followed. Some people left more comfortable knowing what's already in place. Others highlighted the need to address the broader gun culture in this country, and said school shootings likely could only be avoided by taking a holistic approach to the problem.

Hope said he wouldn't support any unfunded mandates — specially, requiring a school resource officer at every school and requiring local governments to pay for that.

Arlington Public Schools, for instance, has 10 school resource officers — sworn, armed police officers who have undergone extra training. One such officer is dedicated to each of Arlington's high schools, its middle schools and two alternative schools. The middle school officers also regularly go to the elementary schools that feed into them.

Cpl. Kyle Anderson, who has been the resource officer at Wakefield for the past six years, said he primarily deals with minor crimes — like stolen cell phones — and cyberbullying. But he said most of his time is spent forging relationships.

"The longer you're at the school… the more kids realize who you are," he told the crowd. "They don't view me as a cop anymore. I usually have a vest on when I walk around, so they know I'm an officer. But they deal with me totally different than they would a cop on the street."

Most of the Arlington crowd agreed that allowing or requiring principals or students to have weapons at school was a bad idea. One man called attempts at such "a smokescreen" by the National Rifle Association to divert attention from attempts at gun control.

The crowd applauded when Arlington resident Bruce Shuttleworth suggested the best use of state money would be on mental health.

After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, the state pumped a lot of money into mental health — nearly all of which has been reduced back to pre-2007 levels thanks to the Great Recession, Hope said.

Hope said he supported a proposal to fund mental health first aid, which would train teachers, college professors and others to be able to identify and best support and respond to people with mental health issues.

[Read Del. Rob Krupicka's blog on Patch: Funding Mental Health First Aid]

Regarding bullying, one woman said schools should have better supervision on the playgrounds. She said she referred to recess at Nottingham Elementary School as "Lord of the Flies."

One Arlington teacher said that while main entrances to schools were locked while students were present, doors to the playground and other entrances remained unsecured.

Since Sandy Hook, she said, lockdown drills have been held more often. Elementary schools already have to keep it low-key, she said, so as not to frighten the children.

"Sitting in a room with 21 kids in the dark, that's just scary as it is," she said. "That's all I need to know that my world has crashed."

Cintia Johnson, Arlington assistant superintendent for administrative services, said that all school entrances were supposed to be secured. Implementation of that has been another matter.

Arlington Public Schools is in the process of reviewing many of its safety and security procedures, she said. Some of that is a direct result of the December shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn.

Lockdowns are different than the "active shooter exercises" being considered in Richmond.

Hope said the state task force could make recommendations to the General Assembly following its meeting Thursday.

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