By Lawrence Messina
Dozens of West Virginia public schools have armed law enforcement officers, but the December massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school has officials talking about expanding their presence.
Thirty-two of West Virginia’s 55 counties have Prevention Resource Officers at 64 middle and high schools through a U.S. Justice Department program, according to state Department of Education figures. These officers spend at least 35 hours each week at their school, and provide training as well, department spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said.
State Schools Superintendent Jim Phares has also informally approached the state National Guard for help assessing schools for safety flaws and threat training for staff.
“This whole thing is emerging quickly,” Phares told last week’s Legislative Lookahead audience.
Phares said officials continue to weigh whether to require armed staff statewide.
“I think we really have to take a look at what message we send if we start arming, putting armed guards and armed teachers in there,” Phares said. “The first message that I don’t want to send is that violence is winning.”
West Virginia now trains school staff to lock down a building and shelter students as securely as possible in response to a threat, Phares said. Phares, a former county superintendent, noted that the threat response policy has evolved as new tragedies test them. He cited how law enforcement followed existing policy when they secured the outside grounds and awaited tactical units at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in April 1999. Two students, meanwhile, killed 12 classmates and a teacher while wounding 26 people.
“We’re going to have to, after this most recent (violence), continue to evaluate that,” Phares said Thursday of state policy.
Over the past few years, the West Virginia School Building Authority has given county school systems $30 million to improve safety equipment at schools, including with electronic locks and security cameras. The goal is keeping out intruders. The funding requires every school system to have a detailed crisis response plan in place by August.
The Legislature begins its 60-day session Wednesday. House Speaker Rick Thompson believes safety issues could join other topics arising from the in-depth study of the state’s education system. The Wayne County Democrat may assign it to the special committee he’s formed to handle the recent public schools audit and resulting proposals.
“They’re meeting with a lot of the same groups that we’ll need to talk to (about safety),” Thompson said. “I think it’s very important. We’re going to explore that as we move through the session.”
Phares and other Thursday panelists who addressed education issues also focused on mental health care resources, both for schools and for their communities. David Haney, a vice president at the West Virginia Education Association, said the school system should have a counselor for every 250 students but instead has one for every 400 students. In some places, it’s one for every 750 students.
“Counselors are overburdened with paperwork and career guidance and test coordinating and class scheduling,” said Haney, whose group represents teachers and administrators. “If we want to help some of these children that may have some of these mental issues, we need to have counselors.”
Veteran educator Terry Wallace, now at West Liberty University, cited his time as an administrator in violent public schools in neighboring Pennsylvania. His suggestions included ensuring teachers and principals connect with the children in their schools.
“If I have reason to believe, as an administrator, that something is amiss with a student, I need to follow up on it, and you can do that only if you know the kids,” said Wallace, with the public college’s Institute for Innovation in Education.
The Legislature has studied student and community mental health issues during its monthly interim meetings, though not in response in Newtown. The Joint Judiciary Committee will review a pilot project that’s monitored child mental health during its Monday interim meeting. The Joint Committee on Health will hear from West Virginia University educators on child behavioral health needs on Tuesday.