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2018-06-20 / Featured / Government & Schools / Front Page

School task force weighs armed mentors

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER

ASH DANIELASH DANIELFollowing the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead and 17 wounded in Parkland, Florida, the conversation about how to secure America’s schools has received renewed attention.

Some have stressed the need for tighter gun control and more mental health screenings; others have floated the idea of arming America’s teachers.

But Chesterfield is considering a novel approach: arming former and retired law enforcement officers to work as student mentors in schools. Before a meeting of Chesterfield’s School Board Safety Task Force last week, Donald R. Green and Mark Bowen presented a proposal to add “armed security mentors” to the county’s elementary schools.

Co-chaired by Brian Moran, the state secretary of public safety and homeland security, and Laura Fornash, the former Virginia secretary of education, the task force is a 29-member panel made up of state and local elected officials, the county administrator and school superintendent, county public safety leaders, school employees, citizens and one student. The task force is looking into ways to improve school safety and student and mental health support services. Green, the school system’s safety and security manager, began by explaining that 18 states currently allow some form of armed school staff. In Texas, 110 school districts have armed staff; Polk County, Florida, is in the midst of hiring 90 armed “school guardians” for its elementary schools.

Last year, Virginia’s General Assembly authorized allowing qualified former or retired law enforcement officers in schools as armed school security officers. While no Virginia schools have implemented the program yet, Prince William County approved $500,000 in its fiscal year 2019 budget to fund five such officers.

Separate from the recent armed mentors proposal, two former law enforcement officers have been hired with Title I grant funds to serve as part-time, unarmed elementary school mentors in the county. In these roles, they work up to 28 hours per week and assist up to 29 high-need students. As K-2 students often see the most discipline referrals at the elementary level, the mentors focus on this age group. They also assist staff with additional students who have outbursts and other needs.

Bowen, who serves as a mentor at Bellwood Elementary, developed the armed security mentor proposal. The plan focuses on elementary schools because Chesterfield doesn’t have school resource officers at the elementary level. Rather than simply having an armed guard on school premises, Bowen says that the armed mentors would spend their time providing support services for students.

Bowen and Green propose a pilot program of putting ASMs in 10 elementary schools, two in each magisterial district, based on need. The men estimate that the overall cost for one year – including salaries and equipment – would be $385,000. The armed security mentors would undergo additional training, including advanced handgun skills.

Among other benefits, Green said ASMs stand to give kids positive experiences with authority figures, in addition to helping with early identification and intervention for problematic students.

“If we do this, we’ll be leading Virginia, and we’ll be leading the nation,” Green says.

For those worried that adding former law enforcement to schools might lead to more student arrests, Green explained that “retired police officers, armed security mentors, they have no arrest authority, so there is no reason for the public to fear an increase in students being arrested.”

Clover Hill District School Board member Dianne Smith said that while the division had long considered having some sort of armed presence in schools, there was always a question of how such personnel would fill their time. Bowen’s proposal answered that question, she said.

Jim Holland, Dale District member of the Board of Supervisors, expressed concern about having armed mentors in schools.

“I see the mentorship as huge, and something we probably really can invest in, but armed officers is a challenge for me,” Holland said.

Chesterfield Police Chief Jeffrey Katz said that to the extent possible, he’d like to pay for the program using forfeiture funds, which come from the seizure of proceeds from criminal activity.

“I would just challenge you to consider if each one of those children were a 5-karat diamond,” he said to those who had qualms with the plan. “We need to consider and recognize that our children are precious and they deserve to be protected.” ¦

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