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.
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The comprehensive plan pleases the major teachers unions. “We must have not only meaningful action on preventing gun violence, but also bullying prevention and much greater access to mental-health services, so that educators and families can identify problems and intervene before it’s too late,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, in a statement Wednesday.Skip to next paragraph
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Some school-safety experts, however, say the focus on gun control in the national dialogue since Sandy Hook has been out of proportion, given how rare mass shootings are in schools.
School safety has become mere “window dressing,” with very few practical resources being offered to help principals make their schools safer and ease parents’ anxiety, says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland.
Obama’s proposal to help schools hire an additional 1,000 SROs and counselors “is not even a drop in the bucket,” Mr. Trump says. Just $150 million was proposed for that, plus $30 million for helping schools improve their emergency plans – compared with more than $400 million this administration has poured into its signature Race to the Top grants to improve schools’ academic performance, he notes.
The US Departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services have all trimmed or eliminated programs designed to improve school safety in recent years, Trump says, and while the proposed new initiatives would take a step toward restoring some of those functions, “the elimination of those programs in the first place was a national embarrassment.”
But others say some programs have been cut due to lack of proven effectiveness, and there shouldn’t be too quick a move to restore such funding without careful scrutiny.
“Given the fiscal climate in Washington, there’s not going to be new dollars, so the question is: Will these [proposals for school safety] be funded instead of other educational programs?” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Mr. Hess also raises the question of whether it’s worth taking educators’ time away from academics to focus on drills for a situation that is so unlikely to occur.
School safety experts say such drills don’t have to take much additional time. Instead, they can be woven into the regular schedule alongside routines such as fire drills.
Any support – whether financial or technical advice that the government can give to improve training for law-enforcement officers who work in schools will be welcome and will boost safety, says Augustine Pescatore, president of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officials (NASSLEO).
He was particularly glad that the proposal included support for active-shooter training and for model policies to ensure that police in schools understand appropriate ways of dealing with students based on their age and any disabilities or special circumstances they may be facing.
“In school policing, you have discretion,” says Mr. Pescatore, who is commander of the Philadelphia school district’s police force but spoke on behalf of NASSLEO, not the district. A good school officer doesn’t jump to arrest every student who acts out, he says, but instead notices if he looks disheveled or has complained of stomach trouble, and talks to him about whether he’s hungry or is having trouble at home.
More training along those lines, Pescatore says, could do a lot to ease concerns of critics who say that police in schools are creating a “school-to-prison pipeline” – with many students being criminalized for what should be school-based disciplinary matters.
For civil-rights groups, the proposals were a mixed bag, largely because of such concerns.
“There are myriad proposals on this list that promise to be effective in preventing or reducing gun violence, including positive interventions to improve school climate and safety. We hope that schools will … steer clear of increasing law enforcement in schools. With such little benefit, the negative consequences are simply too great,” said Leslie Proll, director of the Washington office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in a statement Wednesday.
The degree to which Obama’s proposals will ultimately be enacted largely depends on Congress. In the coming weeks, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce plans to hold hearings to examine school safety.