CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The events of Dec. 14 forever altered the conversation regarding school safety. As we all learned of the heinous acts committed by a deranged individual, our first thought was to find and hug our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Second, we asked ourselves the same familiar questions that we asked after Columbine, Red Lake, Blacksburg and other senseless tragedies. "Why?" "How?" and "How can we prevent these nightmares from ever coming to our school?"
Due to these horrific acts, public attention is tuned in to how we will respond. We have a real opportunity to implement effective measures that will decrease the likelihood of such tragedies visiting our hometowns. The approach must be a multifaceted one that addresses facilities, mental health and security presence, all of which can be addressed within a school setting.
All West Virginia schools should be equipped with two basic but effective safety features. First, all classroom doors should have a dual-lock system to allow a teacher to safely secure their students from inside the classroom. Most newly constructed schools are designed with this feature, while many older facilities have been upgraded to include them. However, many older schools lack this basic provision or have only been partially equipped.
Second, all ground-level floors of school buildings should be installed with shatterproof/bulletproof windows. Law enforcement investigations have indicated that these two facility features can dramatically reduce the likelihood of injury or death if a school shooting were to occur.
It's time that we take student mental health seriously in our public schools. The nationally recommended student-to-counselor ratio is 250 to 1. While our statewide average is around 400 to 1, many schools with more than 700 students have only one counselor. School counselors are some of the hardest-working educators in the public school system. However, they are overburdened with administrative duties such as coordinating testing, scheduling and career guidance. While these are all important functions within a school, unfortunately it leaves a very small percentage of time to mental health counseling.
Furthermore, most of our elementary schools do not have a full-time counselor on staff. Elementary school is the first opportunity for discovering, effectively diagnosing and potentially aiding parents in seeking treatment for a child's mental illness. If caught early, this may prevent a student from slipping through the cracks and developing into an unstable adolescent and, possibly, adult.
Half of West Virginia public schools have an armed Prevention Resource Officer. It's time for the other half to have them as well. PROs provide a trained law enforcement/first responder presence, while also acting as an additional resource to maintain order in a school environment. Many municipal and county police departments have encouraged, if not funded, these positions because of the positive impact it has on the community has a whole.
Funding is always an issue when similar proposals are suggested. However, I contend that now is our time to act. Unlike additional counselors and PROs, facility upgrades are one-time costs. Locks and windows require very little maintenance. Federal lawmakers have begun discussions regarding how to place money on the local level for school safety projects. Some money may be matching funds or grants. However, these types of funding streams typically go to places where the projects are ready to be rolled out. We must take advantage of this opportunity to protect our children.
As a father, educator and legislator, I have spent much of the last two months thinking of how I can play a part in making sure that I do my duty to protect the lives of the children who are entrusted to me every day. While these recommendations may not prevent all mass violence, I do believe that they will go a long way in reducing the impact of these atrocious acts if they come our way.
Stowers, a middle school assistant principal and Democratic delegate from Lincoln County, is vice chairman of the House of Delegates Education Committee.