School Climate & Safety

After the Nashville Shooting, School Safety Proposals Echo Past Efforts

By Evie Blad — April 06, 2023 | Updated: April 06, 2023 8 min read
A crowd of high school students stands in front of the Tennessee State Capitol holding protest signs calling for an end to gun violence.
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Updated: This story was updated after the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to expel two Democratic lawmakers Thursday night.

Tennessee’s state and federal lawmakers have proposed a range of school safety policies—from an increase in school police to arming teachers—in the wake of the March 27 shooting at The Covenant School, in which three children and three adults died.

Meanwhile, the state’s Republican-led legislature seemed to reject a push from student protestors for new gun restrictions, like a “red flag law” that would allow judges to suspend an individual’s access to firearms if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others.

Even as they considered school safety bills this week, members of the state’s House of Representatives also voted to expel two Democratic lawmakers after those members chanted along with student protesters through a megaphone on the floor of the House chamber. A vote to expel a third lawmaker who also participated in the protest failed by a narrow margin Thursday night.

The flood of new legislation echoes what has happened in other states following school shootings. Here’s what you need to know.

Echoes of past school safety proposals

Proposals in response to the Nashville tragedy were layered on top of bills lawmakers had already filed in response to the May 2022 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 children and two adults died.

The successive rounds of legislative responses demonstrated just how difficult it is to find definitive solutions that would respond to all possible safety threats at schools.

School safety experts say there is no single answer to prevent school violence. Rather, school leaders should draw on layers of precautions, emphasizing human factors—like staff training and supportive student relationships—as much as physical measures, like cameras and hardware, they say.

Building on previous efforts

“This past week will certainly be remembered as one of the most heartbreaking weeks in our state’s history,” said Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, as he unveiled an updated package of school safety legislation Monday. “And the history books will also reflect how Tennessee leaders responded in the wake of those tragedies.”

“We have worked on school safety for years, especially in the last year,” Lee continued. “But today is a time to enhance even the legislation that we have already brought forward.”

Lee’s proposal, which passed the state House of Representatives on a 95-4 vote April 6, is an expansion of a bill he had introduced at the beginning of the legislative session, before the Nashville shooting occurred. The state’s Senate is expected to take up similar legislation next week, the Tennessean reports.

Here are the elements alongside context from the Nashville incident and from previous school shooting responses:

  • The bill would require public schools to keep doors locked while students are present and authorize law enforcement to make random checks to ensure such protocols are followed. The Nashville shooter shot through two layers of locked glass doors in a side vestibule to enter the building. In other incidents, like a 2013 school shooting in Centennial, Colo., gunmen have entered through doors that were propped open in violation of security protocols.
  • The bill would require schools to have threat assessment teams, through which educators identify students who may be at risk of harm or violence and intervene through supportive measures, like counseling, and precautions, like weapons checks. Some researchers have cautioned that it can be difficult for schools to identify and respond to legitimate threats. The Nashville shooter, a 28-year-old, was not a current student, and their family struggled to respond to concerns about an “emotional issue,” police said.
  • The proposal would require private and public schools to create school safety plans that include “incident command drills.” After a delayed law enforcement response in Uvalde, lawmakers nationwide have pushed for more coordination between schools and police to prepare for potential crises.
  • Lee’s proposed budget would provide $20 million for public schools and $7 million for private schools to upgrade physical security measures. Experts say hardware and expensive technology often get increased attention after shootings, but they emphasize “people factors,” like training adults in safety protocols, are equally or more important.

Calls for school police, guards

Lee’s proposal would also provide $140 million in grants to place police in every public school and expand a state “homeland security network” with 122 new agents serving in public and private schools.

Similarly, Tennessee’s U.S. Senators, Republicans Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, introduced federal legislation to establish a $900 million grant program “that will allow both public and private schools to train and hire veterans and former law enforcement officers to serve as school safety officers, hire off duty law enforcement officers, and provide funding to harden schools and increase physical security,” the pair said in a news release.

If Congress passed the measure, the new funding would deepen a growing pool of federal school safety grants created in the last ten years—including grants that can be used to hire school resource officers. The Senate’s Democratic leaders have not announced plans to take up the proposal.

Students protest gun violence in schools in front of flags flying at half-staff at the state Capitol on April 3, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. The protest was held one week after six people were killed by a shooter at The Covenant School, a private Presbyterian school, in Nashville. The flags were lowered because of the deaths.

Congress previously allocated $100 million for school safety funding through the STOP School Violence Act following the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Elsewhere in the federal budget, the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing program provides grant funding for districts and local agencies to hire SROs.

As Education Week reported recently, only 38 of the nation’s 13,000 districts have received funding through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the post-Uvalde bill that included nearly $1 billion for school districts to spend on mental health services, violence and drug use prevention, and treatment, and other supports to strengthen student safety and health. That’s in part because many states haven’t announced plans for their schools to apply for that money.

Calls for increases in school policing often follow school shootings. Civil rights advocates, who say the presence of school-based officers can lead to overly punitive school discipline that disproportionately affects students of color, remain concerned by police presence in schools.

Some of those activists questioned whether additional officers would make a difference after multiple agencies responding to the Uvalde attack spent about an hour refusing to enter the classroom where the gunman was located. Similarly, an armed SRO didn’t intervene in the Parkland shooting, even after he became aware that a former student had entered the building with a gun.

In Nashville, The Covenant School did not have an on-site police officer. But the city’s police chief praised local officers for their fast response to the attack. They entered the building without taking time to put on their body armor and shot and killed the attacker within 14 minutes of the first 911 call, he told reporters.

Calls to arm teachers

Tennessee’s House education committee also advanced a bill Wednesday that would allow teachers to carry concealed handguns if they meet certain conditions, like 40 hours of annual training and background checks.

Then-President Donald Trump pushed for a similar proposal in 2018.

Calls to arm teachers have been met with sharp criticism from many educators, including survivors of past school shootings who have called such proposals insulting and harmful.

Some law enforcement agencies have argued that teachers wouldn’t be able to maintain sufficient training necessary to respond to a mass shooting situation, and that additional armed adults on site could confuse responding law enforcement.

Calls for new gun laws

Tennessee’s Democratic lawmakers this week unveiled a package of five gun-related proposals this week, arguing that action on firearms is needed to keep students safe. Tennessee Republicans have expressed resistance to such measures, and many consider the bills unlikely to pass.

“Instead of us having meaningful conversations, we’ve been distracted with the expulsion of some of our members who were speaking out for exactly what the people across the state are begging for us to do,” said Rep. Bob Freeman, a Democrat, according to local station News Channel 5.

The proposals would:

  • Restore state requirements that firearms owners must obtain a permit to concealed carry a gun in public places. Lee signed a law that relaxed those requirements in 2021.
  • Prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines.
  • Close loopholes in state background check laws.
  • Ban bump stocks, which are mechanisms that allow some guns to fire rapidly like an automatic weapon.

The Democrats also proposed a bill to create extreme risk protection orders in Tennessee. Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., currently have such laws, also known as “red flag laws.” Though the requirements differ, red flag laws generally allow courts to suspend a person’s access to firearms if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others. Most states allow family and law enforcement to seek such orders, which typically follow a psychiatric evaluation.

The Nashville shooter’s parents said they did not believe their child, who was struggling with an unspecified emotional issue, should have access to guns. But the attacker apparently legally purchased seven firearms, including three used in the attack, and hid them in the family’s home, police said.

Advocates for tougher gun laws, including Nashville Mayor John Cooper, said a red flag law would have given the family more tools to intervene.

“In Tennessee, we’ve been rolling back gun laws and making guns almost ubiquitous,” Cooper told CNN the day after the shooting. “It makes guns first of mind when people are thinking about doing terrible things. And we’ve clearly got to make that more difficult. We owe it to the parents.”

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