Cpl. Mike Talbott, a school resource officer in Cabell County, sits in his office at Cabell Midland High School June 29, 2023. (Amelia Ferrell Knisely | West Virginia Watch)
Cpl. Mike Talbott walks around the grounds of Cabell Midland High School, one of West Virginia’s largest high schools, its sprawling campus nestled between rolling hills and Interstate 64.
As a school resource officer, some of his day is spent checking outside doors and classrooms for safety concerns. Another part of his day — the part he likes the most — is getting to know the students, many of whom have been impacted by the state’s ongoing drug epidemic. West Virginia has the nation’s highest overdose death rate, according to the latest data available.
“The opioid crisis has devastated the family structure in Cabell County,” Talbott said. He’s seen it firsthand: He’s worked with children in the schools whose parents he’d previously had to arrest for drug use as a Cabell County sheriff’s deputy, he said.
“It destroys [the kids’] self-worth,” he explained, “so they make bad choices.”
So his job now includes working out with some boys in the morning or sitting with a lonely kid at lunch — all part of preventing a tragedy.
Eight West Virginia counties do not have school resource officers (SROs) — positions usually held by current or retired police officers who perform threat surveillance duties, respond to safety threats, and who may also teach classes and invest in student emotional well-being. Records show some counties have only one SRO shared among their schools.
In West Virginia, there’s another category of school officers — prevention resource officers (PROs) — who are funded partially by grants. Education department documents reveal there’s nowhere near enough of them, either, for there to be an officer at every school in the state. The WVDE would not provide information about where they’re posted, citing student safety.
West Virginia Watch obtained the school officer numbers from the state’s Department of Education using the Freedom of Information Act. Some county-level information from the state board of education about where officers and other education safety personnel are located was either omitted from those records or not included in this story due to safety concerns.
School violence has increased dramatically in recent years, particularly in states with fewer gun restrictions like West Virginia, where policies are weak.
The price of protecting children
Recent studies conclude that the presence of school safety officers is associated with declines in some forms of violence, rape and robbery in schools. But, some researchers say police officers in classrooms don’t make a difference in the frequency of gun incidents. SROs can intensify the use of suspension and expulsion of students, especially for Black students and students with disabilities.
For school administrators who want their first officer or to add to their safety staff, funding can be a barrier. Law enforcement, school districts or county commissions are regularly on the hook for paying an officer’s salary and benefits. Sometimes grants are necessary, as well.
It would take roughly $34 million to put an officer in every school in the state, according to the West Virginia Department of Education, and that money wasn’t included in Republican Gov. Jim Justice’s 2022 School Safety Initiative.
When Justice rolled out the plan in the fall, the nation was reeling from the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. In a virtual briefing, he said the $2 million initiative with the state Department of Homeland Security included hiring seven specialized safety personnel throughout the state and launching an app where students and the public could report threats. The plan had a heavy focus on school violence prevention.
“Without any question, it can happen, and it can happen here,” Justice said. “For God’s sakes-a-living, we don’t need to sit around and say, ‘Well, you know, we didn’t think it could happen here.’”
“I would say to the media … I would say to the Legislature: whatever it takes, whether it takes $2 million or $25 [million] or whether it takes $100 million … We do have the resources today, and I would gladly stand behind whatever it takes to make our kids feel safe and be safe,” Justice said.
There are hundreds of vacant SRO positions in West Virginia, according to Jonah Adkins, director of Pre-K-12 Academic Support for the state, in an interview with MetroNews in June.
The governor’s office did not respond to an interview request for this story. The state Department of Homeland Security did not provide an interview about school safety.
“Each county school system partners with local, county and state law enforcement to provide the best coverage at their schools as possible with the resources they have,” Rob Cunningham, deputy secretary for Homeland Security, said in an email through a spokesperson. “All law enforcement agencies face human resource limitations and recruitment challenges as all businesses currently do.”
Ohio County Sheriff Thomas Howard oversees training some of the state’s school officers, the grant-funded PROs — 73 work full time, and 46 part time across the state’s more than 680 schools, according to the WVDE.
Howard advocated for officers in every school but said he knows funding is a major hurdle.
“What is more valuable than our children? You can’t put a price on protecting our children,” he said. “It’s going to come down to money … we need to find a different way of funding them.”
Approaches differ across counties
The Education Department is in “full support” of putting an SRO in every school, Adkins said last month, but cost and hiring are barriers.
The number of SROs varies from county to county, and a larger population doesn’t always correlate with an increase in officers. For example, Greenbrier County — with a smaller population than the city of Charleston — has eight full-time SROs thanks to levy funding approved by local voters. Meanwhile, one of the state’s largest school districts has two.
Sources for this story noted, though, that some counties opted to increase funding for mental health services and other violence prevention programs rather than fund school safety officer positions. Some researchers have said that an investment in student support services, including counselors and social workers, is what will ultimately increase school safety.
And education leaders in West Virginia say there’s still a need for funding and a focus on student mental health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing drug epidemic.
Security programs, too, vary from county to county.
In 2022, a 15-year-old boy in Ripley brought a stolen gun onto a school bus. Police said the student had intended to shoot at least one person at the local middle school — his family disputed that claim. In response, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office started The Shield Program, which aimed to place part-time deputies in every school in the county. The program was funded through the sheriff’s office, the local board of education and county commission.
In Kanawha County, a 2022 voter-approved excess levy will fund $2.7 million in safety and security improvements, including a weapon-detection system in every high school and additional security staff.
“We’re hiring 10 to 12 folks,” said Keith Vititoe, executive director of safety and security for Kanawha County Schools. “They’ll drive personal vehicles and be under the radar. We want parents to know there will be armed professionals there to protect their children.”
In December, Vititoe heard a jarring call come across the police scanner one morning: There was a reported shooting at South Charleston High School. The school went on lockdown, and within minutes, 30 law enforcement officers arrived.
It turned out to be a false call. An investigation concluded a scammer from overseas had targeted schools, Vititoe said.
“Thankfully, it wasn’t a factual call,” he said. “We decided to go classroom to classroom just to make sure that everyone was OK, even though we have no actual report of violence on scene. We actually got some practice with our reunification plan following that.”
But not every county has the same resources.
“They don’t have the luxury of multiple paid police agencies,” Vivote said.
He is working to hire honorably retired law enforcement officers to fill his open safety positions — a compromise he worked out with the school board in order to save money and avoid pulling staff away from local police departments.
A school officer funding dispute could impact Ohio County; Howard explained there’s a disagreement between the school board and the county commission over officer salaries. Without a compromise, there won’t be deputies in Ohio County schools this year, he said. The local board of education is working on potentially using retired officers in schools, instead, Howard said.
Along with funding, school board and county commission support is necessary for hiring school safety officers at this point, said Talbott, the Cabell Midland resource officer.
“Not every county has a sheriff … that would allocate those resources toward the school system. And not every board of education would give the level of support that [ours] has given to us. We’re blessed that way,” he said.
Talbott said his board of education has allowed him to implement some of his own programs in the school. He applied for and received grant funding to launch an anti-bullying and pro-self-esteem program for students.
“You see a big turnaround in the demeanor when the kids walk down the hall,” he said, along with a steady decrease in the need for discipline.
Private school safety amid rising enrollment
Security concerns have also risen at private schools following the deadly shooting in March at Covenant Christian School in Nashville. The school had undergone active shooter training and had security measures, including a double set of locked glass doors, but did not have SROs. Following the shooting, Tennessee’s governor signed a law that allows the state’s private schools to partner with police to hire SROs.
Private schools across West Virginia have seen an increase in enrollment in the last few years as families opt out of public schools, spurred by pandemic-related school closures and the Hope Scholarship Program, which provides thousands of dollars per year per child for private school, homeschooling, microschools and more. More than 6,300 families have applied to use the program, which is expected to cost more than $22 million.
Private and public schools are required to submit safety plans to the state each year.
Jane Smith, executive director of Wood County Christian School in Parkersburg, said a parent task force is working on getting funding, likely through grants, for a school resource officer. The cost will likely be $60,000. The school recently made major updates to its school safety, including a new camera system and more secure doors.
“I would love for the governor to say SROs are in all schools because all the parents are paying taxes, and the safety of these kids should be a priority,” Smith said.
‘We have to really address this’
Delegate Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, vice-chair of the House Committee on Education, said he would like to see an officer in every school.
This year, he said, lawmakers prioritized funding improving the state’s historically low reading scores. Justice signed the Third Grade Success Act, which plans to put teacher assistants in many classrooms, among other things, and is estimated to cost the state $97.8 million.
Ahead of the 2024 session, Statler said he’s in the early stages of drafting legislation that would give some retired police officers arresting powers when serving as school safety officers in an effort to improve security. He said that without this change, retired officers serving in schools couldn’t detain a child who was caught with a weapon.
“There are several that want to do it, but there’s some hurdles in place and I’m looking at that,” Statler said. “The city and county police simply do not have enough officers to maintain their rolls, let alone put them in schools.”
Statler noted that many counties are going to need state funding in order to put officers in schools.
There are also calls for greater state investment in student mental health, and West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said that this should be the state’s priority while looking to prevent school tragedies.
The number of children ages 3 to 17 struggling with anxiety or depression nationwide rose by 1.5 million between 2016 and 2020, according to a report from the Annie F. Casey Foundation. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, mental illness and the demand for mental health services are at all-time highs — especially among children.
In West Virginia, around 30% percent of kids were diagnosed with at least one emotional, behavioral or developmental condition pre-pandemic in 2019, according to the nonprofit’s data.
While lawmakers and the state have made some investments into kids’ mental health in the last few years, West Virginia did not have a full-time counselor or social worker in every school at the end of the last school year, according to the Department of Education.
“We have tried to increase the number of social workers and counselors in schools,” Lee said. “We have to really address this.”
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.