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Funding for school security staff would significantly increase with state budget

A police officer crosses the street outside of Providence Middle School in Chesterfield County.
A police officer outside of Providence Middle School in Chesterfield County. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

As a part of a proposed biennial budget, Virginia lawmakers have included a five-fold increase in state funding for police officers and school security staff in public schools.

As part of a budget proposal lawmakers are expected to approve Wednesday, a total of $27.2 million each year would be dispersed to localities for added security. That’s an additional $22.5 million per year, compared to the previous state budget passed during former Gov. Ralph Northam’s tenure.

The majority of middle and high schools across the state already have at least one police officer — formally known as school resource officers. Police presence at elementary schools isn’t as common across the state; about half of Virginia elementary schools don’t have a school resource officer.

Legislation supported by Gov. Glenn Youngkin that would have required police presence on every public school campus failed to pass earlier this year, in part because of concerns about an unfunded mandate, as well as other concerns about local control. 

During a press conference Tuesday, the governor said school safety is his administration’s No. 1 priority.

“Our job is to make sure that when a parent puts their child on a school bus or drops them off at school, that they come home at the end of the day, just as safe as they were when they dropped them off,” Youngkin said. 

Schools that don’t currently have a police officer or school security officer on campus are prioritized for new grant-funded positions, according to Donna Michaelis, director of the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety. 

And while she said schools that already have police and security staff can apply for additional grant-funded positions through this new funding, localities can’t use the money to pay for existing security positions. The funding usually comes in the form of four-year grants, according to Michaelis.

Localities will also be able to secure this funding without a local match for the first year. In the past, a local match based on the state funding formula — known as the Local Composite Index — was required to receive the funds.

“The school resource officer grant program has been a vital initiative that has received broad bipartisan support for years,” said Sen. Todd Pillion (R-Washington) in an emailed statement. “Funding this program with an additional $45 million while waiving the local match requirement in the first year will greatly expand our ability to enhance safety and builds on legislation I sponsored earlier this year requiring better coordination between school divisions and local law enforcement in the conduct of school safety audits.” 

The presence of armed police officers inside schools has been a controversial topic in Virginia for years, but has been underscored by recent mass shootings like the one in Uvalde, Texas. Multiple reports have confirmed upset community members urged police to charge into the Texas school sooner than they did.

Research on the effects of police presence on student and school outcomes is limited, and the evidence that does exist is mixed, according to the Urban Institute. Some studies show a rise in arrests for low-level offenses when more police are placed in schools. That’s exactly what Valerie Slater, executive director for Rise for Youth, is concerned about.

“Already, the number one referral source to the courts from school is law enforcement. If we have by five times now increased the funding [for law enforcement in schools], I wonder what that's going to look like,” Slater said. “We can't continue to use police as a response to problems, to trouble that's happening with young people in the community.”

Slater pointed to the story of one Richmond student she’s worked with.

“She was experiencing very real mental health crises, and she was hoping that she would get the support that she needed from school counselors,” Slater said. “But all she saw was more and more school resource officers, and not the counselor that she needed. In a nutshell, that's the problem.”

Ashley R. Moore, attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said the funding would be better used elsewhere.

“What we know about SROs being in schools is that, unfortunately, they are not always able to stop mass shootings or large-scale attacks on schools,” Moore said. “However, we do know that they have a direct harmful effect — too often — on children of color and students with disabilities.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) also said she would have preferred the additional money was invested in student mental health services, instead of more police officers. 

“I think it ignores what our own data tells us is the number one threat to our students,” McClellan told VPM News, pointing to a 2020 state threat assessment survey that found 57% of threats by students are made to themselves exclusively.

Though she’d liked to have seen a greater focus on student mental health in the budget, McClellan said she was glad to see some additional funding to support it. 

The budget includes $2.5 million for a school-based mental health pilot program McClellan proposed to help fund specialized supports beyond the scope of school counselors and regular staff, like suicide prevention or trauma counseling. 

The budget also provides funding to pay for an additional 3.25 school-support positions — for positions like school counselors or social workers — for every 1,000 students. However, the budget still doesn’t fully fund the state standards of quality.

“We got about a third of the way to fulfilling the gap between current funding policy and what the board of education said is needed to have a high-quality education in Virginia schools,” said Laura Goren, research director for the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, in an email statement.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.