Beyond gun control: Will Obama's plans make schools safer?

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

Jason Reed/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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