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Beyond gun control: Will Obama's plans make schools safer? (+video)

In addition to his gun-control proposals, President Obama unveiled plans designed to make schools more secure. Education groups are largely supportive.

By Staff writer / January 17, 2013

President Obama high-fives eight-year-old Hinna Zejah after unveiling a series of gun control proposals during an event at the White House on Wednesday.

Jason Reed/Reuters

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Many education groups applauded President Obama’s proposals and executive actions Wednesday – particularly the broad gun-control agenda that took center stage because of the high-powered weapon used in an attack on schoolchildren and staff in Newtown, Conn., and other recent mass shootings.

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Mr. Obama’s recommendations range from more funding for school police, counselors, and emergency planning to training for educators to detect signs of mental illness among students.

But is the stage really set for the federal government to make a large-scale difference in school safety? Or, as some experts suggest, will a flurry of attention to the issue fade off priority lists for schools in this tight-budget era, much the way it did after the initial post-Columbine focus on bullying and school safety?

While that’s difficult to predict – especially since many of the proposals would need approval from Congress to even get off the ground – a range of education groups said the comprehensive approach takes to heart their recommendations and signals an important first step.

 “We thank the president for using his lofty podium to push for these ideas that, if implemented, will undoubtedly make schools safer," says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “We’re happy to see that what’s not in the proposal is arming the teachers."

Providing incentives for schools to hire more school resource officers (SROs) was one of the 23 executive actions Obama took Wednesday. He also proposed $150 million to place an additional 1,000 SROs, counselors, or psychologists in schools.

Resource officers are “particularly valuable for prevention … [because] students who hear veiled threats and warnings that often precede rampage shootings feel most comfortable turning to SROs, who they believe will be responsive but discreet,” writes Katherine Newman, author of “Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings” and a dean at Johns Hopkins University, in an e-mail.

Other proposals in the president’s package that would touch schools directly include:

  • Training for 14,000 law enforcement officers and school officials in how to handle active-shooter situations.
  • Comprehensive School Safety grants – schools that receive a portion of the $150 million mentioned above for resource officers or counselors could also use part of the money for buying safety equipment, conducting threat assessments, and training crisis-intervention teams.
  • A requirement that schools receiving federal funding for safety develop and practice emergency plans. While 84 percent of schools had a written response plan for a shooting in 2010, only 52 percent had drilled their students in the past year, according to the White House. This spring, a set of model plans will be made available, and $30 million in grants is proposed to help districts develop their own plans.
  • $50 million to fund 8,000 school plans to create safer and more nurturing climates through evidence-based practices to reduce bullying and other problematic behaviors.
  • “Mental health first aid” training for teachers – $15 million to help educators and others who work with youths to detect signs of mental illness.
  • $40 million to help school officials work with law enforcement and mental-health agencies to ensure that students with problems are referred to get the help they need.
  • $25 million for state-based strategies to support 16- to 25-year-olds with mental-health or substance-abuse problems.
  • $25 million to help students traumatized by violence and to support conflict-resolution and other violence-prevention strategies.

“Our goals are simple: fewer children dying from gun violence and fewer children living in fear,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement Wednesday.

“Today, looking into the eyes of parents who have lost children due to gun violence, I am more committed than ever,” said Mr. Duncan, charged by the president to launch a national dialogue on mental health along with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

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