Colonial Heights shows off school safety as Va. leaders work to improve security measures

COLONIAL HEIGHTS, Va - Their front door is always staffed, no one can enter the building without being buzzed, and panic buttons summon police immediately;  Colonial Heights High School showed off school safety measures they say make their school inviting and secure at the same time.

Virginia lawmakers continue to study school security in the wake the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.  On Monday morning, school leaders at Colonial Heights officials said many of their technology and infrastructure improvements were made prior to the Florida shooting, but Cox said they are examples of best practices for other school districts can follow.

Cox said he hopes the select committee on school safety that he formed during the 2018 General Assembly session will take lessons from localities big and small.

"I would hope in the end, that you have a really great set of best practices for school systems of different degrees of size, geography, different situations," Cox said following the tour.  "I think we can learn a whole lot and hopefully get some good recommendations in place."

Colonial Heights principal Kristin Janssen said her school is in constant communication with the local police department about potential issues at the school.  Open dialogue between the schools and the community members are the best way to keep school buildings safe, the group said.

Colonial Heights school leaders said the district is fortunate to have school resource officers in every school in the district.  However, since the Florida school shooting, officers have begun taking stopping by the schools on a regular basis as a precaution.

"Not only do we have school officers in the building everyday, but we actually have our patrol officers who are working on the street to come in and do walk-throughs and circle the campuses," said Sgt. Renee Walters, SRO Coordinator for Colonial Heights Police.  "It's very fortunate for us that we have such a great partnership and relationship, that we can make sure our schools are safer for our staff and the students who are attending these schools."

Cox said the recommendations made by the select committee must include new funding to help school districts across Virginia hire more SRO's and improve safety procedures inside schools.  However, Cox said the relationship building between schools, police, and the community is equally important.

"Our job, I think, is to get all the experts, come up with a combination of things that are small, that best practices, and that are funding issues so hopefully at the end of the day the General Assembly session will give a really good set of recommendations both on the mental health piece, the security piece, and the preparedness piece," Cox said.

Virginia democrats have said the select committee does not go far enough because it will not discuss the role guns play in school security.  Cox defended that decision again Monday.  He said bringing guns control into the discussion automatically politicizes the issue and limits productive dialogue.

Karen Tomlinson graduated from Colonial Heights High School, and her daughter will do the same in a few weeks.  Tomlinson said she has noticed a change in school security since she attended the school, and said her family always feels safe, in part, because of the strong community supporting the school.

"It used to be that all the doors were pretty much open. You could go in any of them out of any them," Tomlinson said.  " I certain level of safety yes, but you still have to live life."

State lawmakers have not announced when the select committee on school safety will hold its first meeting, but will bring recommended legislation to the 2019 General Assembly session.