by Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications

school-to-prison-pipelineGood news! Last week a Senate committee defeated legislation (HB 1309) that would have allowed school boards to arm school security officers (SSOs) with batons, stun weapons, and spray devices. Though admitting that no school had asked for this power, the legislation’s proponents argued that arming SSOs would make our schools safer. Fortunately, a majority of the Senate committee’s members recognized that arming untrained school staff would not result in safer schools, and would possibly have the opposite effect.

First, some background on SSOs. Unlike law enforcement officers, including school resource officers (SROs), SSOs are school board employees whose mission is to enforce school policy, not state or local law. SSOs only have authority to use the same level of force as any other school board employee.

Under this proposed legislation,  students could have been placed in the path of an untrained, armed SSO. As the bill’s fiscal note states, “[t]he bill does not direct the Department of Criminal Justice Services to update SSO training and certification requirements prior to a local school board decision to arm SSOs. The bill also does not require currently certified SSOs to be recertified pursuant to any new requirements established by DCJS prior to carrying the weapons permitted by the legislation. … [T]he provisions of this legislation could allow for currently certified SSOs to carry and use permitted weapons at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year without additional training.” (To make matters worse, even when properly used, some of the weapons permitted under this proposal are potentially lethal.)

We must focus on preventing violence, not responding to it. As the University of Virginia Curry School of Education found, Virginia “[s]chools are not dangerous places. . . . In fact, very few violent crimes take place at school. From the standpoint of violent crime, students are safer at school than at home. Moreover, schools have become even safer during the past decade . . . .” To make our schools even safer, we must focus on evidence-based programs, like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which have been shown to improve student behavior and create a more positive school environment.

School safety decisions should be based on objective evidence. There is no credible evidence that arming SSOs would make schools safer. (And, as we saw with the shootings at Virginia Tech and Columbine, the presence of armed personnel does not stop violence.) Moreover, Virginia does not collect data on arrests and referrals made by SROs (SROs are armed, sworn law enforcement) in Virginia’s schools, so we lack the basic information necessary to determine whether existing SROs are improving the safety of our schools. Before we consider proposals to arm SSOs, thereby expanding the number of armed people in our K-12 schools, we should collect and analyze the basic data about how armed individuals are currently utilized at our public schools.

HB 1309 was the wrong solution to creating safer Virginia schools.  Fortunately a majority of the Senate committee recognized (at least in this case) that school safety decisions should be based on evidence, not fear.