Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Editorial: Virginia as national leader on school safety

By Scott Taylor

Virginians are not far removed from the horrific tragedy that recently occurred in Newtown, Connecticut. All Virginians watching or reading the news shared in the devastation and understood how Sandy Hook survivors will forever feel, as they recalled the horrible nightmares of the shooting at our own Virginia Tech University in 2007.

As a community leader, I was disappointed to witness politicians and pundits manipulating this tragedy to score cheap political points, undermining the success of bona fide efforts to prevent future violence at our nation's schools. Now isn't the time for petty political punches -- it is time for a national dialogue to identify concrete steps to prevent further tragedies in our schools.

We need immediate solution-oriented discussions initiated by our elected leaders that identify the root cause of this type of violence and spur action toward substantive preventative policies, ensuring there will be no more Newtown-, Columbine- or Virginia Tech-caliber crimes in American schools.

Virginia must rise to occasion. I want to see our state as national leader on school safety by establishing benchmark innovations in school security and violence prevention.

As a security consultant who has spent much of the last three years managing the safety of facilities filled with people and deterring violence from armed offenders in a high threat Middle Eastern country, and as a former Navy SEAL, I know about keeping danger at bay.. While the above example is extreme, the basic fundamentals are the same. Our actions must be clear and productive. For the government to fail at protecting our children while at school is just simply unacceptable.

First and foremost, we must avoid the attempts of politicians to appear to “do something” about the problem by adding more laws to the thousands of gun laws in the country. Gun control is not the same thing as murderer control. This is an issue of mental health as much as it is gun violence, neither of which can be eradicated. Success hinges on frank and honest discussions that avoid restrictive policies, ones that will chip away at basic American Constitutional rights.

Schools need to have a minimum security presence to effectively stop violence. As I write this from a bookstore and café, I can easily see a security guard right in front of me. While he may not be armed, he serves as a disincentive to potential thieves. Americans have accepted metal detectors and armed guards at courthouses, government buildings, the TSA at airports, and other public places. Since we are speaking about schools and not a maximum-security prison, it is important to explain the significance of a soft security posture rather than an aggressive one. While schools don't need guards with guns highly visible or wielding rifles, discussion is necessary for the need of visible, non-aggressive security guards. Evident security goes a long way as a deterrent to potential criminals in any public setting. While some have dismissed the idea of having armed security in schools, it is important to note that many schools have already opted to put them in place.

Further, government can do more to prepare schools to react to emergencies when they happen. A well-trained staff can be an effective deterrent as well as a formidable asset when crisis occurs. Our state must lead by creating easily understood, minimum standards for safety at every school in the Commonwealth. Examples of these are: maintaining secure single points of entry and exit to and from school buildings (except in emergencies), clear and rehearsed lock down plans, clear communication drills including using fire alarm systems to manage evacuations, and rich partnerships between school staff and first responders. Training educators as first responders to incidents, a reluctant role they may find themselves playing, should be priority.

Teachers, other students, counselors, coaches, and, of course, parents can make important contributions and play key roles in preventing violence. Just as a national anti-bullying movement has successfully taken place, an anti-violence movement can have similar results. Training in understanding potential warning signs and encouragement to speak up about them should be action programs in schools across Virginia, and America.

There will always be unstable people who are determined to inflict harm upon the innocent; they have always been with us. However, we can lead the way on executing concrete steps to stop further tragedies before they happen. We must be proactive, rather than reactive.

I am calling on our state to be the leader, meeting the challenges of properly securing our schools through fostering active security, preventative training with school staff and first responders, and exploring the connections between mental health and violence -- all while preserving our Constitution and Second Amendment rights.

Scott Taylor, a candidate for the 85th House of Delegates in Virginia, has served years as an asset protection advisor in an extremely high threat and armed country in the Middle East and is a former Navy SEAL.