School Climate & Safety

3 Cabinet Members Seek Solutions on Campus Safety

By David J. Hoff — May 15, 2007 4 min read
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For the second time this school year, Bush administration Cabinet officers are searching for ways to help school officials prevent and respond to school shootings.

Like last’s falls effort, the product of the work will be in the form of guidance and advice on how to apply lessons learned elsewhere, instead of financial incentives to do the work, a federal official said last week.

The task force—which involves Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael O. Leavitt—is looking for ways to more widely disseminate proven strategies for preventing and responding to school shootings, said Holly Kuzmich, the deputy chief of staff for Ms. Spellings.

“A lot of it is making sure that people are aware of the best practices that are out there,” Ms. Kuzmich said in an interview.

The task force also plans to provide legal guidance on how schools can share information about students who show warning signs for violence, while still complying with federal rules protecting the privacy of health and education records, Ms. Kuzmich said.

Some education officials suggest that the federal response so far has been inadequate because it hasn’t helped schools finance the changes they need to make after shootings in K-12 schools and at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University during the 2006-07 school year.

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“We can use all the help we can get,” said Mark A. Manchin, the executive director of the West Virginia School Building Authority, who added that he’s disappointed that the federal government isn’t proposing to help the state pay for the estimated $100 million it will cost to install safety measures in its 780 K-12 schools. The state legislature has appropriated $10 million for school security improvements.

Federal officials also could provide direct assistance to school officials in applying best practices, such as information-sharing by school, law-enforcement, and mental-health officials, Mr. Manchin said.

After the April 16 rampage in which Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 students and himself, President Bush assigned Ms. Spellings to work with Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Leavitt to suggest ways the federal government could help prevent future campus shootings.

Mr. Leavitt is heading the group and has the assignment of issuing recommendations for how the federal government can help schools of all grade spans in preparing for and preventing school shootings.

The Cabinet members have met with governors, educators, and law-enforcement officials in Colorado, Utah, West Virginia, and several other states in recent weeks. They expect to release their report soon, Ms. Kuzmich said.

The effort is similar to the one Mr. Bush initiated last fall after deadly shooting incidents at a high school in Bailey, Colo., and at an Amish school in Lancaster, Pa. (“School Shootings in Policy Spotlight,” Oct. 11, 2006.)

The group convened after those incidents, which also included Ms. Spellings, published a two-page brochure with tips on crisis planning and created a page listing resources and model plans for preventing school violence on the White House Web site. The White House also convened a one-day summit on school safety shortly after the shootings, in October.

But the group didn’t recommend any federal financial assistance for schools to use the information provided.

The Cabinet officials are unlikely to propose any new money to help schools respond to the recent attacks, Ms. Kuzmich said.

The Education Department does administer the $576 million Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program, which supports efforts to address issues ranging from reducing student fights to stopping gun violence.

The current task force is likely, however, to deal with questions raised by educators as they seek to comply with privacy laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

Such help is needed, one school safety expert said, because school officials interpret FERPA to bar them from sharing any personal or mental-health information about students with law enforcement, said Delbert S. Elliott, the director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, based at the University of Colorado, who attended a meeting convened in Denver by Secretary Leavitt on April 27.

But the law permits school officials to alert law enforcement or child protective services if they see several signs that a student is preparing to commit a crime, Mr. Elliott said.

Encouraging school administrators to forge information-sharing relationships with law-enforcement and mental-health officials could be the more important step federal officials take, said Gregory A. Thomas, a deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, located at Columbia University.

“It’s all about trying to build your network before disaster strikes,” said Mr. Thomas, who was the director of school security in the New York City school system at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2007 edition of Education Week as 3 Cabinet Members Seek Solutions on Campus Safety

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