School Climate & Safety

House Panel Grapples With School Safety Issues

By Alyson Klein — March 05, 2013 4 min read
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School resource officers, additional guidance counselors, and professional development for educators can help schools head off tragedies such as the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December, witnesses told members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee at a recent hearing last week on school safety issues.

Left largely unsaid: Expanding federal grants to help schools offer those programs—as Vice President Joe Biden proposed in January—will cost money. And right now, with the federal government in the midst of a budget crisis, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of extra cash on the horizon for new programs.

Some lawmakers on the Democratic side of the aisle at the hearing, such as U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, of Connecticut, said they would like to see more resources for school safety and mental health. But the committee didn’t engage in a robust debate over whether the federal government, or state and local governments, should be financing school safety efforts.

Instead, members heard from witnesses about practices that are already in place, including ensuring that school resource officers develop close relationships with students, and updating school safety plans continually.

Student Relationships

One witness, Bill Bond, was the principal of Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., the site of a school shooting in 1997 in which three students were killed. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., asked him if there was anything he could have done differently to prevent the shooting.

Mr. Bond, who is now a school safety specialist at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said it would have been helpful if everyone in the building had felt a responsibility for school safety—including students.

“Students know more about what’s going on in school than the principal,” he said. “Eight kids saw the gun before the shooting took place.” None of them told him, any of the teachers, or their parents, he said.

Jumping off that point, Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., asked whether districts have enough guidance counselors to truly get to know students, so that they might be able to gain their confidence and identify potentially troubled students early. (The average student-counselor ratio nationwide is 470-to-1.)

Right now, however, counselors are pulled in dozens of directions, some witnesses said. “School counselors often spend their time doing schedules,” said David Osher, the vice president of the American Institutes for Research in Washington.

Rep. Andrews also asked one of the most provocative questions of the hearing: Did the witnesses, who included a host of school safety and school mental-health experts, think it made sense to arm school officials, a step that some districts are already taking? Nearly all of them said they considered it a bad idea.

Frederick Ellis, who handles security in the Fairfax County schools in Virginia said, “It’s a very risky proposition, and I would not be in favor of it.”

Gun Control?

There was also almost no discussion of gun legislation—which isn’t in the committee’s jurisdiction. But, in his opening statement, Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the committee, made it clear that school safety and mental-health programs must go hand in hand with comprehensive gun-control legislation.

“Any school safety changes in the wake of Sandy Hook must be implemented in tandem with comprehensive gun-violence prevention,” he said. “Common-sense strategies are needed to keep guns out of the hands of those who intend harm.”

The Obama administration—and many congressional Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California—want to crackdown on the sale of military-style assault weapons and ensure that buyers undergo background checks before purchasing guns.

The Obama administration has already proposed a myriad of programs—at a price of hundreds of millions of dollars—aimed at bolstering school safety and helping schools improve mental-health services.

The proposals include new money for schools to hire school resource officers or counselors and grants for states to upgrade their safety plans. It also includes smaller grant programs aimed at helping schools train teachers to recognize the signs of mental illness early, and new money to help school districts establish partnerships with law enforcement agencies, as well as write a grant proposal to help train additional school psychologists and guidance counselors.

Questions for the Administration

Republicans on the education panel, including Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, its chairman, sent Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other Cabinet officials a list of questions about the proposals last month. Among them: How would the administration’s proposals differ significantly from school safety and counseling programs already on the books, and how would they avoid the pitfalls of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Grant program, which was scrapped because the Obama administration and Congress decided that the funds were spread too thinly.

Since the administration rolled out its proposals, individual members of Congress, including Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., have introduced legislation to bolster mental-health services in schools. And Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has put forth a set of bills to help schools improve safety.

The same day as the hearing, the White House held an event at which Secretary Duncan and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano moderated two of the three panels on the emergency-management needs of schools, institutions of higher education, and houses of worship. Two of the participants had deep connections to the K-12 world: John McDonald, the executive director of security and emergency management for the Jefferson County public schools in Colorado, and Natalie Hammond, a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Staff Writer Nirvi Shah contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as House Panel Weighs School Safety Concerns

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