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School Safety Forum Held by Florida Senators Highlights Prevention, Security

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 18, 2018 5 min read
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A school safety forum on Capitol Hill hosted by Florida’s U.S. senators focused on how to help students head off threats from their peers, and on improving security measures for schools, among other topics.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, also used the event here on Wednesday to tout their support for having the federal government offer states incentives to adopt “red flag” laws that prevent those who represent a threat to themselves or others from accessing or purchasing firearms, while preserving legal protetions for those individuals. Rubio and Nelson introduced a bill to this effect, the Extreme Risk Protection Order and Violence Prevention Act, last month, after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Advocates and public officials also emphasized the importance of communication at various stages to help address school violence, from making it easier for students to share their concerns with adults, to helping law enforcement respond to violent incidents more quickly.

Nicole Hockley, whose son was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, highlighted the “Start With Hello” training program that helps children communicate with each other about their difficulties. The program is run by Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit group led by Hockley that works to prevent children from violence. “It sounds so simple. But the best programs are,” Hockley said.

And Indiana officials attending the session pointed to a school that’s become a model for new security measures, from bullet-resistant classroom doors to smoke bombs that can fill a hallway and disorient a school shooter. (The latter clocks in at a cost of $400,000.) Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill said the state has emphasized “what we can do to harden our schools, but not make them a prison.”

In expressing interest in creating national school safety standards, Rubio pointed to the Americans With Disabilities Act that created national building standards to address the needs of people with disabilities. While he said the analogy to gun violence and school safety isn’t perfect, “It’s an indication of where federal policy could help over time.” He also expressed an interest in making it easier somehow for school leaders to discover “best practices” for safety, so that “they can hear from one another about what other places are doing.”

Meanwhile, Nelson praised the “courageous” students and other activists who have pushed for new gun-control measures and safer schools. He said he was focused on “trying to get stuff done that we can get done in a bipartisan way.”

“We remain hopeful that Congress wil continue to respond to this movement that has come out of this great tragedy,” Nelson said of the Parkland shooting.

Where Rubio and Nelson Stand

Nelson and Rubio have taken different approaches to addressing gun violence and school safety since the Parkland shooting.

Rubio was a vocal supporter of the STOP School Violence Act, which provides competitive grants to districts for crisis-intervention services, anonymous reporting services, and more. The legislation was rolled into the fiscal 2018 federal spending bill signed last month by President Donald Trump.

He’s also criticized Broward County schools’ approach to discipline. (Broward County is where the Parkland shooting occurred.) In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he questioned the Obama-era guidance on school discipline and its potential impact on the Parkland shooting, though the guidance was released a year after the Broward school system revamped its discipline policies. And earlier this week, he highlighted a story by Real Clear Investigations that painted a picture of a Broward district that ignored dangerous and violent incidents:

Nelson, meanwhile, has been an advocate for stricter gun-control measures since the Parkland shooting. Earlier this month, he held a community roundtable in West Palm Beach, Fla., on school safety and gun violence.

“Let’s get to the root cause ... let’s get these assault weapons off our streets,” Nelson said on the Senate floor in the immediate aftermath of the shooting at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 students and school staff dead.

He also joined a host of Democratic senators in calling for additional money for school safety last month, before the STOP Act was included in the most recent federal spending bill.

‘A Little Bit of Magic’

Like Hockley, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes stressed that officials must ensure students have outlets to share their concerns with people in authority so that ultimatey law enforcement can respond quickly.

Students in Utah can use the Safe UT app, commissioned by the University of Utah, to report possible threats to themselves or others. The app is monitored around the clock by mental-health professionals, who can then triage the reports and notify police when appropiate. In February, more than two dozen tips about potential threats were reported using the app, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

“There is a little bit of magic in this,” Reyes said, given how and how often students use their phones.

Additional changes to federal practice were also discussed. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should be able to research gun-violence prevention and not just gun violence itself, which Rubio signaled he agreed with. (In the recent federal spending bill signed by President Donald Trump, restrictions on the CDC for gun-violence research were loosened, although there’s no accompanying funding to back up new research.)

Others, however, spoke about the need for broader cultural changes to help children feel supported. Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was murdered at Stoneman Douglas, spoke about the “contagion” effect that can lead one school shooting to lead to further violent incidents. “I think we can put an antibiotic together” to help stop this, said Petty. He added that helping students contemplating suicide would be especially useful in keeping children and their school peers safe.

And Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, cautioned against the temptation to simply stick police officers who aren’t a right for educational environments into schools—not all police officers are cut out to be school resource officers, he stressed.

“The number one goal of school resource officers is to bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth,” Canady said.