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House Education Panel Grapples With School Safety Concerns

By Alyson Klein — February 27, 2013 3 min read
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School resource officers, additional guidance counselors, and professional development for educators can help schools head off tragedies such as the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December, witnesses told members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee today.

Left largely unsaid: Expanding federal grants to help schools offer those programs—as Vice President Joe Biden proposed last month—will cost money. And right now, as school districts across the country face looming federal spending cuts, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of extra cash on the horizon for new programs.

Some lawmakers on the Democratic side of the aisle, such as U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, said they would like to see more resources for school safety and mental health. But the committee didn’t engage in a robust debate over whether the federal government, or state and local governments, should be financing school safety efforts.

Instead, members heard from witnesses about practices that are already in place, including ensuring that school resource officers develop close relationships with students, and continually updating school safety plans.

One of the witnesses, Bill Bond, was the principal of Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., the site of a school shooting in December 1997, in which three students were killed. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., asked him if there was anything he could have done differently to prevent the shooting.

Bond, who is now a school safety specialist at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said it would have been helpful if everyone in the building had felt a responsibility for school safety—including students.

“Students know more about what’s going on in school than the principal,” he said. “Eight kids saw the gun before the shooting took place.” None of them, he said, told him, any of the teachers, or their parents, he said.

Jumping off that point, Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., asked whether school districts have enough guidance counselors to truly get to know students, so that they might be able to get them to gain their confidence and identify potentially troubled students early.

Right now, however, counselors are pulled in dozens of directions, some witnesses said. “School counselors often spend their time doing schedules,” said David Osher, the vice president of the American Institutes for Research in Washington.

Andrews also asked one of the most provocative questions of the hearing: Did the witnesses, which included a host of school safety and school mental health experts think it made sense to arm school officials, a step that some school districts are already taking? Nearly all of them said that they considered it a bad idea.

Gun Control?

There was also almost no discussion of gun control—which isn’t in the committee’s jurisdiction. But, in his opening statement, Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the committee, made it clear that school safety and mental health programs must go hand-in-hand with comprehensive gun control legislation.

“Any school safety changes in the wake of Sandy Hook must be implemented in tandem with comprehensive gun-violence prevention,” he said. “Common sense strategies are needed to keep guns out of the hands of those who intend harm.”

The Obama administration—and many congressional Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein—want to crack down on the sale of military style assault weapons, and ensure that buyers undergo background check before purchasing guns.

The Obama administration has already has proposed a myriad of programs—at a price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars—aimed at bolstering school safety and helping schools improve mental health services.

The package of proposals includes new money for schools to hire school resource officers or counselors, and grants for states to upgrade their safety plans. It also includes smaller grant programs aimed at helping schools train teachers to recognize the signs of mental illness early, and new money to help school districts establish partnerships with law enforcement agencies, as well as develop a grant proposal to help train additional school psychologists and guidance counselors.

Since the administration rolled out its proposals, individual members of Congress, including Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., have introduced legislation to bolster mental health services in schools. And Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has put forth a set of bills to help schools improve safety. But none of that legislation has advanced very far on Capitol Hill.