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School safety: How a new Virginia law is expected to save time, lives during emergencies

When it comes to police and firefighters accessing school buildings, there’s a new law in Virginia that makes sure they know where they’re going.

NORFOLK, Va. — In emergencies, time is everything. When it comes to students at school, saving even just a few seconds during an emergency response is vital.

“Time is essential to be on a scene to assess a situation quickly,” said Dr. Jared Cotton, the superintendent of Chesapeake City Public Schools. “An emergency is not going to happen when you want it to happen. It’s going to happen when it’s inconvenient, but knowing what people have to do through practice is so important.”

School divisions across Hampton Roads already have security measures in place with locked entrances, surveillance cameras, and ID requirements for visitors. 

Students, faculty, and staff also thoroughly practice lockdown drills.

However, when it comes to police and firefighters accessing the buildings, there’s a new law in Virginia that makes sure they know where they’re going.

The new law took effect July 1, 2022. It requires school division leaders to provide an updated and detailed digital floor plan to School Resource Officers, police departments and other first responders.

Cotton said every year they update their safety drills, but this new technology helps them with outside resources.

“Now law enforcement has access to those maps digitally,” said Cotton. “They can look at it on their phones very quickly or use a laptop. They don’t have to shuffle through maps, or papers or documents. They can quickly pull it up and assess a plan of action.”

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Wendell Jenkins, the assistant director with Virginia Beach City Public Schools’ operations and maintenance service, said his school division has had a similar system in place over the past decade.

Now, he says school leaders will share it in a digital format with local departments authorized to access this information.

“This just gives you eyes and a feel for what you’re going to expect when you get to the building, not trying to figure it out once you get there,” he said.

Jenkins said having these digital maps also helps school staff when communicating during that essential 911 call.

“There’s a way to describe where you are, so when you do that and they’re looking at the same interface on the same map. They can identify where that person is and see all the devices located and if there’s a camera close, they can hover with that camera and see what’s going on. That’s just an example,” he said. “The thing is everyone is on the same page looking at the exact same information.”

Cotton said leaders with Chesapeake City Public Schools have a “see something, say something” policy and encourage students to report suspicious behavior to an adult immediately, instead of posting it on social media or staying quiet.

He said the school recently implemented a new tool called the “Quick Tip” messaging system. It allows students to anonymously send a message if they see or hear something that causes concern. 

Cotton said this allows students to feel more comfortable about notifying an adult.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools COO, Jack Freeman, said they are guided by a Blue Ribbon panel for school safety and security to assess how the division is conducting safety measures.

Freeman said this year, the school is adding an additional security assistant at a group of elementary schools. There's a phased approach for the next couple years, and his team plans to have a security assistant at every single elementary school.

Freeman said VBCPS is also adding an emergency manager position to coordinate with the City of Virginia Beach Emergency Management team moving forward.

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