Local schools reviewing new report on safety recommendations

Report focuses on both security and students' mental health

By Tommy Lopez - Weekend Anchor / Reporter

A new federal report released Tuesday makes recommendations on school safety policies. Local school districts told 10 News they're looking at it to make sure they're following the guidelines.

The Federal Commission on School Safety, created earlier this year after the tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida, hopes its report can be a tool to prevent violence in schools. It includes typical safety measures, like building security, and guidelines for supporting kids emotionally.

The report makes nearly 100 suggestions on practices and policies. Below are some of its recommendations.

-A positive school climate is important, so students feel connected.
-Students need access to mental health counseling.
-The community needs to be involved, including churches.
-Concerning behavior should be reported -- prior to most attacks students had concerns about the future attacker.
-Communities should be informed and alert.
-Media outlets should focus on the victims and not repeatedly use the name and photos of the attacker.
-Training for safe storage of guns is important.
-States should expand laws that prevent people who are deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others from having guns.
-Active-shooter training is vital for officers, staff and students.
-Security assessments of buildings are critical.

Many local districts are looking at this report, including the city of Roanoke and Roanoke and Montgomery counties.

Chris Perkins, chief of security for Roanoke City schools, said the report is right on target, and, when it comes to mental health awareness, the district has been focusing on understanding trauma.

“We understand that it’s not what’s wrong with a child it’s what happened to the child, and understanding that history, that background, allows us to create that relationship,” Perkins said.

Counselors in the district are conducting training with all staff. Perkins said the relationships between the students and staff can be critical.

There are a lot of aspects to building security that Perkins said deserve a district’s attention. The report explains a three-layered strategy: entry points, the building envelope (walls, windows, roofs, etc.), and classrooms.

Perkins thinks most districts around the country are aware of these concepts, in part because of reports like this one.

“I think you’ll find in all 50 states that there’s, at a minimum, a rudimentary understanding of that,” he said.

This past summer, he conducted risk assessments at every school and plans to repeat that each year. He walks with principals and staff at every school through their building, talking about specific rooms and how to best respond to a crisis.

The report also made a suggestion to media outlets, saying the focus on reporting should be on the victims, not the names and photos of attackers, who may be carrying out the acts, in part, for attention.

“I think there is a level of infamy that these individuals look for,” Perkins said. “I do agree that the media plays an important role in how to frame these stories for the public.”

Roanoke City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Rita Bishop said the district is already doing everything in the report and is working to improve. She said the district continues to focus on mental health.

“It is really about developing trust with students because we’ve had any number of incidents that students have helped us prevent,” Bishop said.

She said the district will add more counselors in the future.

She congratulated Perkins on the job he and his team are doing with school safety.

She said there are hundreds of precautions the district has taken that leaders don’t want to talk about with the public, to keep the strategies private.

Part of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s budget proposal, released in full Tuesday, includes funding for more counselors. His office says there will be more than $35 million set aside.

10 News has been reporting for a year on what local districts are doing to keep students safe, and has more on those efforts in its Generation Under Fire section.

Virginia schools reported 9,238 threat assessments in 2017, 50 percent of which were threats of self-harm. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among school-aged youth nationally, and in Virginia. 

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