School Climate & Safety

Federal Response to Fla. Shooting Starts to Take Shape

Congress focuses on school safety, not guns
By Andrew Ujifusa — March 20, 2018 5 min read
Ryan Petty, left, of Parkland, Fla., whose 14-year-old daughter, Alaina, was killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, hugs Katherine Posada, a teacher at the school, after they testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Washington has begun responding to demands from students and advocates that federal officials address school safety after a shooting at a Florida high school last month, although new gun restrictions and other politically controversial shifts don’t appear to be in the cards in the GOP-controlled Congress.

President Donald Trump and lawmakers from both parties in Congress seem to agree that additional training of school staff and law enforcement, as well as new preventive measures, would help guard against incidents like the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 students and staff members dead.

But deep divisions remain about proposals from the Trump administration unveiled last week, including a push for educators to carry guns at school, and virtually no sign that Capitol Hill will have an easy time sending additional gun-control measures to the president.

Still, there’s been an unmistakable increase in Beltway activity. And much of it took place March 14—the same day students walked out of their schools around the nation to demand measures to stem gun violence and boost school safety.

That afternoon, the House of Representatives approved the STOP School Violence Act, which reauthorizes a school-safety program and approves additional federal aid for counseling and early-warning systems to help defuse or head off violent incidents. There’s similar legislation in the Senate.

The same day, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned victims of the Parkland shooting and law enforcement officials, about various issues surrounding the massacre. Republicans latched onto what they viewed as failures by law enforcement and lax school discipline policies, while Democrats pushed for new restrictions on firearms.

Task Force Formed

And a few days beforehand, Trump announced the formation of a federal school safety task force led by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Among other issues the task force could study is arming some teachers, age restrictions for purchasing certain guns, and repeal of guidance issued by the Obama administration in 2014 intended to address racial disparities in school discipline.

But it is unclear whether the recommendations from the task force led by DeVos will affect decisions by the Trump administration or Congress: Money authorized under the STOP School Violence Act legislation, for example, would be controlled by the Department of Justice, not the Education Department.

And how much political pull DeVos will have as she heads up the task force’s work remains to be seen.

Immediately after meeting with DeVos about school safety last week, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, called DeVos’ work on the “gun commission” created by Trump to be “the latest effort to delay and shift the conversation away from the gun safety reforms” the public wants. DeVos’ press secretary shot back that Murray’s description of the meeting was an “inaccurate account” shared in the name of a “political stunt.” (By contrast, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the Senate committee chairman, called his meeting with DeVos “productive” and said he looked forward to working on the issue with the secretary.)

One area where there was little disagreement was the House vote on the STOP School Violence Act, which passed the chamber by a vote of 407-10 exactly one month after the Parkland shooting.

The legislation was introduced earlier this year to virtually no fanfare, but it picked up dozens of co-sponsors after the Stoneman Douglas killings. Written by Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., the bill would reauthorize the Secure Our Schools grant program. Grant money would go to help school staff recognize early warning signs of potentially violent incidents. It would also fund anonymous reporting systems to help alert law enforcement and others to potential threats posed to schools.

Grant Program

The bill would authorize the grants through fiscal 2028 along with $50 million in annual funding, although districts would have to put up 25 percent in matching funds to qualify.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced his own version of the STOP School Violence Act in the Senate earlier this month. Both bills have bipartisan backing. Both also ban schools from using the grant funds to arm school staff or for firearms training.

However, it’s not clear if the Senate will fast-track its own STOP bill like the House did. Senators may first try to work out a deal on shoring up the national background-check system for gun purchases.

At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, made it clear he thought that accused Parkland shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, should have been into custody by law enforcement based on his threatening behavior on social-media platforms, prior run-ins with police, and tips from before the Feb. 14 attack.

GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida also said the Broward County district’s leniency towards Cruz’s behavior when he was a student at Stoneman Douglas let him skate by without any sort of criminal referrals or other red flags from local police.

A full and official picture of his disciplinary record at the school has not been confirmed. It’s not immediately clear whether the 2013 change to the district’s discipline policies, made in part to reduce law enforcement’s role in minor on-campus incidents, might have affected local police interactions with Cruz and his arrest record.

Lee and Rubio also referred critically Obama-era guidance that dealt with concerns about how school discipline policies can have a disproportionately negative impact on students of color. That Obama guidance, however, came out in 2014—after the discipline-policy changes in Broward schools.

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, focused her remarks on gun control.

Also testifying at the hearing was Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was killed at Stoneman Douglas. “Where we really stop the next killer is in our homes, in our communities, and through our faith,” Petty said. “The best defense against the next Nikolas Cruz is in building up strong families where love can be shown to a hurting child.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2018 edition of Education Week as Response to Shooting Begins to Take Shape

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