By Whitney Spicer and Blake Belden
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Members of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s School and Campus Safety Task Force vowed Monday that their recommendations on keeping Virginia’s schools safe would be based on fact and not emotion.
The task force – charged with evaluating the safety of schools and campuses throughout the state – was assembled by McDonnell in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last month in Newtown, Conn.
“I thought in the wake of that terrible tragedy, it would be prudent to get all of our leading experts from all disciplines together to gather around a table or two, and talk about what can we do better,” McDonnell said.
After a gunman shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary, some called for immediate measures, such as banning assault weapons or placing armed personnel in schools.
However, Marla Decker, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and a co-chair of the task force, said the group’s recommendations would not be reactionary but rather based on data, analysis and evidence.
“We must take a reasonable, methodical approach to school and campus safety,” Decker said. “This doesn’t mean that the task force should not think creatively – it should. But we must take a logical approach to sending recommendations to the governor and to the General Assembly.”
Some members of the task force are no strangers to tragedies such as the shooting in Connecticut. Task force member Allen Hill recalled the death of his daughter, Rachel, who at 18 was killed in the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in April 2007.
McDonnell noted that Virginians may have particular insight into what Newton residents are experiencing.
“Perhaps no state is more familiar with this kind of inexplicable tragedy than Virginia after April 16, 2007 at Virginia Tech,” McDonnell said. “Many of you have been a part of that recovery.”
When a deranged student killed 32 people at Tech, McDonnell was the state’s attorney general and Tim Kaine was governor.
After that massacre, McDonnell said, he and Kaine worked together and “came out with specific advice, an executive order and changes to firearms and reporting protocol all within 30 days. So I’m confident that if all of you take a look at where we are right now, you also can come up with some initial recommendations in a short period of time.”
McDonnell issued an executive order creating the task force on Dec. 20, just six days after the Sandy Hook shootings. He appointed the task force last week. It has 45 members, ranging from teachers, law enforcement officials and mental health practitioners to legislators, parents and students.
One of the task force members is state Delegate Margaret Ransone, R-Kinsale, a mother of two.
“I think that being a mom and wanting to make sure that our children are safe will absolutely play a part,” she said. “I have an 11-year-old and a 7-year-old, both in public schools. But because of the oath I took, my decisions will be fully based on the information that we have.”
The task force will have three main subgroups: education, mental health and public safety. These subgroups will work together to produce the most effective results, Decker said.
The task force plans to send its initial recommendations to the governor by Jan. 31. The first round of recommendations will focus on issues that require legislation or budget appropriations, Decker said.
The task force is scheduled to issue a final report by June.
McDonnell apologized to the panel for the tight deadlines. But he said time was of the essence.
“I think that we have a very important duty to make sure in our education system, K-12 or university, every person has the ability to work hard and gain access to the American dream and to do it in a safe and secure environment,” McDonnell said.
“For the most part we’ve been able to do that in our state pretty well. But I think these events have called upon us, once again, to look at all aspects of school and campus safety and say, ‘Is there something we can do better?’ ”
Here are the members of the Task Force of School and Campus Safety:
Co-Chairs: Marla Decker, Secretary of Public Safety
Laura Fornash, Secretary of Education
Bill Hazel, Secretary of Health and Human Resources
Ken Cuccinelli, Attorney General of Virginia
Joseph Yost, Virginia House of Delegates
Margaret B. Ransone, Virginia House of Delegates
Patrick Hope, Virginia House of Delegates
Tom Garrett, Senate of Virginia
Richard Stuart, Senate of Virginia
George Barker, Senate of Virginia
Patricia Wright, Superintendent of Public Instruction
Donna Michaelis, Director of the Virginia Center for School Safety
Colonel W. Steven Flaherty, Superintendant of the Virginia Department of State Police
Garth Wheeler, Director of the Department of Criminal Justice Services
Mark Gooch, Director of the Department of Juvenile Justice
Michael Cline, State Coordinator of the Department of Emergency Management
James W. Stewart III, Commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services
Maureen Dempsey, Acting State Health Commissioner
Peter Blake, Director of the State Council on Higher Education
Sarah Gross, PTA Legislative Liaison
Michelle Wescott, Nurse, Rena B. Wright Primary School in Chesapeake; PTA Health and Safety Chair
Vincent Darby, Principal, G. H. Reid Elementary School, Richmond
Keith Perrigan, Principal, Patrick Henry High School, Washington; President, Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals
Deborah Pettit, Superintendent, Louisa County Schools
Dianne Smith, Member of Chesterfield School Board; Retired Principal
Leonard Steward, Lexington City School Board
Regina Blackwell Brown, Educational Specialist for School Counseling, Henrico County Public Schools
Meg Gruber, Teacher, Forest Park High School, Prince William; Virginia Education Association President
Judi M. Lynch, Principal, Saint Gertrude High School, Richmond
Dr. Sandy Ward, Director of the School Psychology Program, College of William & Mary
Dewey Cornell, Professor of Education, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia; Director, Virginia Youth Violence Project
Charles J Klink, Assistant Vice Provost and Vice President for Student Affairs, Virginia Commonwealth University
Sheriff Brian Hieatt, Tazewell County
Sheriff Mike Chapman, Loudoun County
Chief Jim Williams, Chief of Police, Staunton
Chief Don Challis, Chief of Police, College of William and Mary
Joel Branscom, Commonwealth’s Attorney, Botetourt County
Chief Steve Cover, Fire Chief, Virginia Beach
Edward “Bubby” Bish, Virginia Association of Volunteer Rescue Squads
Captain Steve Carey, Stafford County Sheriff’s Department (former School Resource Officer)
Gene Deisinger, Deputy Chief and Director of Threat Management, Virginia Tech
Charles Werner, Charlottesville Fire Chief (Member of Secure Commonwealth Panel)
Allen Hill, Father of Rachael Hill, Victim of Virginia Tech Shooting
Alexa Rennie, Student, James River High School
Jillian McGarrity, Student, Lynchburg College
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.