School Climate & Safety

A Year Later, Newtown Tragedy Yields Little Policy Change

By Evie Blad — December 10, 2013 9 min read
Lynn McDonnell, left, mother of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Grace McDonnell; Jimmy Greene and Nelba Marquez-Greene, center, parents of victim Ana Marquez-Greene; and Jennifer Hensel, right, mother of victim Avielle Richman, stand with other victims' families as they address the media on Dec. 9, 2013, in Newtown, Conn. The parents announced the formation of a website "intended to serve as a singular place of sharing, communication, and contact with the families of those who lost their lives that day."
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Around the country, “Newtown” has become shorthand in policy discussions for the horrific act everyone is trying to prevent.

But in Newtown, Conn., the site of the Dec. 14, 2012, school massacre, leaders refer to the events of that day simply as “12/14.”

A year after the shooting, the flurry of passionate calls for “national conversations” and changes to state and federal laws related to guns, school security, and mental health that were spurred by the tragedy has yet to produce a sea change in policy. While an undetermined number of districts across the country responded to the violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School by beefing up safety measures or adding armed security staff, only a fraction of the state and federal legislative changes proposed in the immediate aftermath of the killings have become law.

“People asked ‘How can we really protect our students? How can we ensure that something like this won’t happen?' " said Pamela L. Goins, the director of education policy for the Lexington, Ky.-based Council of State Governments. “The message that we’ve heard is that we need to be as prepared as possible.”

A year after the deadliest K-12 school shooting in American history, Newtown is still trying to regain a sense of routine. District leaders, fearing a rush of media attention leading up to the anniversary, rejected all requests for interviews about the attack, in which 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook and killed 26 people, including 20 children.

Meanwhile, deaths from school violence remain statistically rare. Between the 1992-93 and 2010-11 school years, violent deaths that occurred while the victim was at school, on the way to school, or at a school-related activity peaked at 63 in the 2006-2007 school year, and nine of those were classified as suicides, according to data from the U.S. departments of Education and Justice. But the most recent information available from those agencies doesn’t include the 2012 deaths in Newtown. More children ages 5 to 18 died in that single event than in homicides at schools nationwide in six of the last 15 years, the data show.

But statistical realities may not calm the fear of anxious parents after tragic events that are widely covered by national media, said Michael S. Dorn, the executive director of Atlanta-based Safe Havens International, a school safety consulting group. He said school-related actions after Sandy Hook came from a sense many state and district leaders had that “people needed to feel safe,” even about statistically improbable possibilities.

Police Presence

The armed security that some districts added in the wake of Sandy Hook came in all forms: police officers, contracted guards, even volunteer military veterans.

At a Newtown school board meeting after the shooting, a mother asking board members for a long-term police presence in the schools put it this way: “We feel this has gone from a want to need.” Newtown has assigned police officers to all of its schools, First Selectman Pat Llodra said in a June blog post.

A school bus drives past a lamppost decorated for the holidays in Newtown, Conn. With winter on their doorstep once again, the people of Newtown are bracing for the day everyone there simply calls “12/14”— referring to the day last year when 26 people were killed by a gunman inside Sandy Hook Elementary School.

School security data from the National Center for Education Statistics do not include the two most recent school years, so it is impossible to track how many schools have added school resource officers since the shooting. But school security organizations have said an increased demand for training courses and tactical equipment suggest an uptick.

Such a response is common after a large-scale event of school violence, Mr. Dorn said. But adding armed officers at the elementary level is an element of the Sandy Hook response that is atypical, he said.

As schools have added officers, critics of “zero tolerance” discipline policies have feared that the additional police presence will lead to excessively harsh discipline, said Matthew M. Cregor, an assistant council for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“As more officers have been placed in our schools and more funding removed for counselors, we’ve found that school resource officers are being misused to address the types of matters that are better handled by parents and educators,” he said.

Arming Staff

Many educator groups, including the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, have said only police officers should carry weapons in schools, but some districts have instead opted to train and arm staff members—including teachers. Alternatives to school resource officers were among recommendations included in a report released in April by a National Rifle Association task force, which suggests a training plan for armed school personnel and changes in state laws that prohibit or hinder the carrying of firearms on school grounds.

After Newtown, lawmakers in 29 states filed 62 bills that would have allowed teachers to bring guns to school, permitted local school boards to designate employees who could be armed, created training programs for school employees, and eased other restrictions. Of those bills, just six have passed.

A new law in Texas, for example, created school marshals, a designation for existing school employees who will be authorized by their school boards to be trained to confidentially carry weapons in schools. New laws in Kansas, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Tennessee allow districts to authorize employees with concealed-weapons permits and required training to carry guns in their schools.

Districts also used existing laws and loopholes to arm their staffs.

The school board of the 1,000-student Montpelier, Ohio, district voted shortly after the Newtown shootings to allow some staff members to carry their own firearms on school grounds. A year later, Montpelier Superintendent Jamison J. Grime won’t say how many employees carry guns on the district’s single campus, but he confirmed that the program remains in place.

“We just don’t have the resources to hire somebody just to be here in case of an emergency,” he said.

Are Schools Safe?

Education Week‘s Commentary team asked experts from different fields whether American schools are safe, and how they can be made safer. Several weighed in, with their responses being published in the OpEducation blog.

Read the responses.

In Arkansas, some school districts quietly acquired private security guard credentials for staff members and teachers. A state licensing board for security guards has since halted the practice, allowing the dozen districts involved to keep their existing guard credentials for two years.

But few widely followed discussions of arming school employees led to broad policy change, said Ms. Goins of the Council of State Governments. And that’s also true of other proposals related to school safety, she said.

“We really didn’t see the major outcome after all that flurry of initial activity,” Ms. Goins said.

An Education Week analysis of measures tracked by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that state lawmakers proposed 442 bills and resolutions related to school safety and guns in schools since the Sandy Hook shooting. Of the 77 of those bills that were signed into law, 42 were related to school emergency planning. Those measures included new requirements in many states for districts to practice lockdown drills with the regularity of severe weather and fire drills, and the formation of school safety study groups.

Federal Efforts

At the federal level, most efforts have also stalled or failed.

After the shootings, the Department of Education went to work on new safety guidelines for schools, which were issued in July.

In January, President Barack Obama’s administration unveiled a wish list of proposals that needed legislative approval, including new restrictions on gun sales and a litany of new federal programs aimed at bolstering school safety and student mental health. None of the proposed new programs included in that list has been enacted into law.

Mr. Obama sought a ban on assault weapons sales, magazine-capacity limits, and increased background-check requirements for gun purchasers. Those efforts failed for lack of congressional support.

The president also proposed $150 million in new money for school-based resource officers and mental-health professionals, $50 million for training new social workers, $30 million to help districts revamp their emergency-preparedness plans, and $15 million in new funding to train teachers in “mental-health first aid.” Congress, which has been bent on reining in spending, has not provided the funding for those initiatives so far.


Senate committees approved legislation that would authorize funding for security infrastructure upgrades, encourage states to help districts implement new mental-health programs, and allow states and schools to use money under the roughly $60 million Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities National Activities program to establish partnerships with mental health clinics, among other measures. None have been enacted.

Erica Lafferty, daughter of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Dawn Hochsprung, right, consoles Carlee Soto, sister of victim Victoria Soto, after victims' families addressed the media on Dec. 9, 2013, in Newtown, Conn. Newtown is not hosting any formal events to mark the one-year anniversary on Saturday.

Mr. Obama also tapped Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to launch a national conversation on mental health. This has not since been a significant focus for Mr. Duncan or the administration. The Education Department did point to a few outcomes from the dialogue, including new websites—mentalhealth.gov and creatingcommunitysolutions.org. And the White House hosted a conference on mental health this summer.

In the absence of federal action, several states have addressed mental-health issues through their schools. Minnesota beefed up an existing school-based mental-health program, Texas added training in mental-illness recognition to its teacher licensure requirements, and Nevada created mental-health screening pilot for schools.

Beyond louder conversations about policy and personnel, an enduring effect of Sandy Hook will be a continued rethinking of how schools are designed to promote safety, policymakers have said. Ten new state laws passed since the shooting focus on improving school facilities through state-level building standards related to security, the formation of task forces to study ideal building design, and new grants for security upgrades.

Jim LaPosta Jr., the chief architectural officer for JCJ Architecture, a Hartford, Conn., firm that consults with school districts, said architects have seen more instances of “systemic review” of school building security measures following Newtown than they saw after previous acts of school violence.

Instead of bullet-proof whiteboards, said Mr. LaPosta, schools should focus on ensuring that buildings allow greater visibility in common areas and hallways, controlled access at entrances, and simple products—like shatter-resistant film on exterior glass—that can slow would-be shooters.

Schools should be learning-focused and not “fortresses,” Mr. LaPosta said. “If it becomes the overriding mission of a school to keep kids safe, we worry about the kind of school it will be for kids.”

Buried in many efforts since Sandy Hook is the mistaken idea that one law or one new building feature is the perfect response, school safety professionals said.

“We saw a lot of knee-jerk reactions [to the Sandy Hook shooting],” said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services consulting firm.

He said district leaders and policymakers must instead emphasize effective disciplinary practices, constant training, and evaluation of the school safety measures already in place.

Mr. Dorn, of Safe Havens International, said schools shouldn’t forget about common problems like bullying and playground accidents as they rush to address the rare threat of school violence.

“I tell my clients, let’s talk about this school resource officer, but do you also have a school nurse?” he said.

Assistant Editor Alyson Klein and Associate Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this article.

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as A Year Later, ‘Newtown’ Still Echoes

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