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State adds safety officers for 2023-24 school year


CHARLESTON — State Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Rob Cunningham says West Virginia’s public schools will be much safer when students and staff return next month thanks to Gov. Jim Justice’s School Safety Initiative.

Part of the plan, launched in October 2022, includes the hiring of seven school safety officers to be placed in regions across the state. Cunningham said the 2023-24 school year will be the first full year the officers will be making themselves known in schools.

“Our safety officers are making sure everyone knows what to do and so far, we’re having really good responses,” he said.

The initiative was announced as a way to generate more law enforcement presence in schools following Robb Elementary School massacre in Uvalde, Texas, in May 2022 where 19 students and two teachers were shot and killed.

Officers have been visiting the approximately 700 schools in West Virginia this year to see if any security upgrades need to be made.

“Those officers are out every day going out visiting multiple schools, doing inspections, making recommendations and make a report of what they’re finding,” Cunningham said.

Each officer oversees a number of counties, meaning those officers will not be physically present in every school every day.

“One officer may have 10 counties and one officer may have 15 counties, but a couple of those counties only have one high school,” Cunningham explained.

Counties have different efforts to bring in local officers to patrol the halls.

In addition to working with the FBI and local law enforcement agencies, the state is also partnering with the state Department of Health and Human Resources to identify mental health issues among students and staff.

Cunningham said the state was able to learn from one event in particular last year. On Dec. 7, 2022, more than a dozen school systems in West Virginia received fake active shooter calls.

“We’ve been able to learn from that. We’ve taken a lot of the pluses and made sure we’ve incorporated them into other counties and of course we’ve reflected on the negative,” he said. “I believe our schools are safer than there were in December.”

Cunningham said one challenge they had to tackle was traffic issues at schools during a potential crisis. He said the statewide initiative provides one uniform approach to get all first responders, citizens,
teachers and students on the same page.

The governor signed legislation earlier this year, which established a School Safety Unit within the state Division of Protective Services. Employees who already work for the state were assigned as officers to ensure school safety.