Published Online: April 15, 2013
Published in Print: April 17, 2013, as Bills Advance on School Security, Mental Health

School Security, Mental-Health Measures Advance

Jillian Soto, left, whose sister Vicki Soto was one of the teachers killed in the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, wipes away tears during a press conference held last week by Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat. Several families of Newtown victims came to Washington last week to press the Senate to begin debate on a gun-control proposal.
—Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

The national discussion about improving school safety evolving from the shootings in Newtown, Conn., reached a pivotal moment last week, as the U.S. Senate began consideration of a measure to strengthenRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader school building security, and a Senate committee passed a measure that would bolster school-based mental-health services.

Although Republican senators threatened a filibuster to keep the Senate from discussing the school building security measure—part of proposed legislation that deals largely with the higher-profile issue of gun control—compromises reached behind the scenes nudged the legislation onto the chamber's floor by the end of the week.

The deal that paved the way for the Senate breakthrough centered on some aspects of the gun bill regarding background checks for buyers. It came on the heels of plans for improving school safety from the National Rifle Association and other groups, and followed President Barack Obama's proposals for new spending in his budget to upgrade security, improve school climate, and boost mental-health-care services for students—similar ideas to those he offered in January in response to the Newtown shootings. But those measures are likely to face an uphill battle in a Congress that has proved unfriendly to proposals that involve new spending.

Indeed, there was speculation that the bipartisan mental-health measure, proposed jointly by Senate education committee Chairman Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, and ranking Republican committee member Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, flew quickly through its first committee discussion because it contains little in the way of new spending.

On the Front Lines

The call for improvements to mental-health-care services has grown since the December shootings in Newtown, when a gunman killed 26 children and employees at Sandy Hook Elementary before shooting and killing himself. Questions have been raised about his mental health and about that of shooters in other episodes of violence. Schools have been declared the front lines for early intervention and detection of mental illness.

At a town hall meeting about gun violence that was hosted by the National PTA last week in Baltimore County, Md., U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that lawmakers must address the country's mental-health-care system as part of a comprehensive approach to improving school safety.

"The vast majority [of those who have committed violent acts at school] have real challenges. So many were themselves bullied," Mr. Duncan said, noting a recent conversation with a student in the District of Columbia who said he brought a deadly weapon to school because he had been bullied and felt no one listened to him. "When students are struggling, ... someone has to know what's going on there."

National School Shield Task Force Director, former Arkansas Rep. Asa Hutchinson, details the group’s findings and recommendations during a news conference earlier this month in Washington.
—Jose Luis Magana/AP

Under the Senate committee's mental-health proposal, states would be encouraged to provide districts with technical assistance on implementing school-based mental-health programs. The measure makes clear that schools can use Title I money for schoolwide intervention services and to create or update school emergency-management plans. It would also renew a program that offers grants to states, Native American tribes, and nonprofit groups to train school staff and emergency-services personnel to recognize the signs of mental illness and connect students and others with the services they need.

"Any piece of legislation that's going to improve mental-health services, and schools' ability to deliver mental-health services in schools by qualified people practicing within their areas of expertise, we're happy about that," said Kelly Vaillancourt, the director of government relations for the National Association of School Psychologists, based in Bethesda, Md.

In recent weeks, her organization and others collaborated on their own framework for improving school safety, and the legislation echoes some of those ideas, she said.

The American Association of School Administrators was less laudatory.

"If the Senate [education] committee wanted to pass meaningful mental-health legislation, they would need to address staffing shortages, professional development, and funding limitations," said Sasha Pudelski, the government-affairs manager for the AASA, which is based in Alexandria, Va. "This legislation doesn't do that. However, if this is the only way Congress can do something related to mental health in schools, it's better than nothing at all."

President Obama's budget, released April 10, calls for some of what the AASA wants. It includes requests for $55 million for a program that would help educators become more fluent in understanding and identifying potential mental-health issues in students and $50 million to train new mental-health professionals to work with students and young adults.

Movement on Gun Control

Getting the gun-control measure to the Senate floor was at times an agonizing process to watch. Speaking for hours before the Senate on April 10, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut discussed each victim of the Sandy Hook massacre, noting, for example, that 6-year-old Noah Pozner, the youngest victim, was an advanced reader for his age and his twin sister escaped the shooting merely by being in a different classroom. Sen. Murphy's stories were spread out over multiple stints at the microphone and included an easel with a poster covered in photographs of the 26 students and staff members of Sandy Hook killed on Dec. 14.

In addition, several families of Newtown victims arrived in Washington to press senators into action.

On the same day as Mr. Duncan's town hall meeting and Sen. Murphy's Newtown recollections, first lady Michelle Obama spoke in Chicago about violence that has plagued that city in recent months, comparing herself with a young woman gunned down in the city days after performing in inauguration events in Washington.

"Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her," Mrs. Obama said to a group of business leaders she hoped would donate money to develop more community programs in Chicago—and to persuade the Senate to act. "But I got to grow up."

President Barack Obama hugs Newtown family members after speaking last week at the University of Hartford in Hartford, Conn., where he said lawmakers have an obligation to act on behalf of victims of gun violence.
—Susan Walsh/AP

The gun-control bill calls for $40 million in grants to state and local government agencies that want to upgrade school security by buying lights, fencing, doors, locks, and security cameras. The money could also be used to train teachers and administrators on security and better collaborate with local law-enforcement officials. Districts could also use the funds to set up hot lines or tip lines for "the reporting of potentially dangerous students and situations." Local government agencies would have to provide a 50 percent match for the federal resources.

The National Rifle Association pounced on the Senate compromise over background checks, which had been negotiated by Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. The senators agreed to expand background checks to gun shows, but exempt personal transactions, say, between family members, from the same kind of vetting.

"As we have noted previously, expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools," the Fairfax, Va.-based NRA said in a letter to the Senate.

The organization's remarks came about a week after it unveiled its own proposal for improving school safety. The NRA plan calls for schools to arm at least one employee, better secure school buildings, and improve mental-health resources for students, saying that one of those ideas without the other two is insufficient.

NRA Plan

The pro-gun group's recommendations immediately drew protests from education groups and had already prompted a pre-emptive strike by a collection of civil rights groups.

Although the decision to add armed personnel is a local one, said Asa Hutchinson, who runs the NRA's school safety initiative, during an April 2 press conference, he also said that bolstering mental-health resources at schools and improving building security alone are inadequate steps to ensuring school safety.

Related Blog

"The presence of armed security in a school is a layer that's just as important as a mental-health component," said Mr. Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas, who also has worked in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department's Drug Enforcement Agency. "Just [addressing] mental health—it's inadequate. Armed security without access control—it's inadequate."

Mr. Hutchinson said he backed off an earlier idea promoted by the NRA shortly after the Newtown killings: using armed volunteers to stand guard at schools. Education leaders he spoke to over the past few months were uncomfortable with the idea, he said.

Existing and future school resource officers should communicate better with local law enforcement, and armed school personnel should have comprehensive training, Mr. Hutchinson said.

The NRA plan does not address limits on gun control or the size of magazines.

"If you have the firearm on the presence of someone at the school, it will save response times," Hutchinson said. "That's the objective."

Vol. 32, Issue 28, Pages 19,21

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