A task force convened by the National Rifle Association said on Tuesday that it recommends schools either hire armed security officers or arm selected school employees, make improvements to school buildings, and add mental health resources to schools to keep students safe.
Although the decision to add armed personnel is a local one, said Asa Hutchinson, who runs the NRA’s school safety initiative, at a press conference here, he also noted that bolstering mental health resources at schools and improving building security alone are inadequate steps to ensuring school safety.
The NRA created its National School Shield program after the December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. The deaths of 20 students and six staff members marked the shooting as the deadliest in K-12 history.
“The presence of armed security in a school is a layer that’s just as important as a mental health component,” said Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas, who also has worked in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Agency. “Just [addressing] mental health—it’s inadequate. Armed security without access control—it’s inadequate.”
Hutchinson said he backed off an earlier idea: using volunteers to stand guard at schools. Superintendents and other school leaders he spoke to over the last few months were uncomfortable with the idea, he said. (Of note: The National Press Club, where Hutchinson gave his remarks, was staffed with uniformed and plain clothes security and at least one bomb-sniffing dog during the press conference.)
Existing and future school resource officers should communicate better with local law enforcement, and armed school personnel should have comprehensive training, Hutchinson said. He dismissed a question about whether the presence of more firearms at schools could lead to more shootings, accidental or otherwise.
“If you have the firearm on the presence of someone at the school, it will save response times. That’s the objective,” Hutchinson said, adding that a key component of the training armed school personnel should get involves storing weapons. (Some states already allow arming school employees.)
Gun Control Not Addressed
The plan does not address limits on gun control or the size of magazines. Hutchinson said a compromise reached this week by Connecticut lawmakers on gun control legislation, which includes limits on the size of magazines, isn’t the right approach to keeping schools safe. (The Connecticut bill, expected to be up for a vote on Wednesday, also includes a fair number of school safety proposals.)
The National School Shield plan is timed to precede federal gun control and school safety legislation. However, the Senate bill that addresses federal gun and school safety issues does not include any provision for more money for schools to hire more school resource officers, counselors, or mental health workers, but the bill does propose new money for improvements to school infrastructure, including surveillance equipment, and the creation of local hotlines or tip lines that could be used to report “for the reporting of potentially dangerous students and situations.”
Mark Mattioli, the father of James Mattioli, a 6-year-old killed at Sandy Hook, joined Hutchinson on Tuesday, urging a close look at the plan.
“As parents we send our kids off to school and there are certain expectations. At Sandy Hook those expectations weren’t met,” Mattioli said, calling the School Shield document “real solutions that will make our kids safer.”
“I read a report from 2002 that had some great input from the [U.S.] Department of Education and the Secret Service. What was done at the local, state, and federal level to make our school safer, to make Newtown safer?” he said.
The National School Shield plan has eight major recommendations for improving school safety. Aside from a model training plan for school police officers and selected school personnel and better communication between local law enforcement and schools, it proposes probing assessments for schools to assess how vulnerable their campuses are to attack. These assessments could be done online and the NRA National School Shield initiative would provide the tool at no charge to any school, he said.
Also, state education agencies should require schools to have safety and security plans, and federal agencies should coordinate better on advising and supporting school safety. Federal agencies could provide grant money to support safety technology and training, he said.
In a nod to concerns about how the addition of school police officers could lead to unnecessary arrests of juveniles for behavior that doesn’t threaten school safety, Hutchinson said officers should have a clear understanding about their duties, outlined in agreements between their agencies and schools. (That kind of thing just happened in Denver.)
The National School Shield also wants schools to create a program that addresses students’ mental health needs, noting that many school shooters have felt threatened or bullied and are retaliating. “That’s not an excuse,” he said, but “it is a preindicator.”
Hutchinson said the NRA still has to accept the plan, which the NRA said it is looking at now. Hutchinson said he was hired as a consultant to work independently of the by the Fairfax, Va.-based NRA specifically on school safety issues.
He assembled a panel of advisers who include former Secret Service leaders, military leaders, and active and retired law enforcement officers. They looked at security measures in several schools in rural, suburban, and urban settings ranging in size from about 220 students to nearly 3,000. Some employ school resource officers part-time or full-time, and some don’t have them at all, or school security staff are unarmed.The group was also advised by school district leaders, including from Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
The NRA is the latest group to outline how schools should improve security. In a pre-emptive strike against the NRA plan, a coalition of civil rights and education groups issued their own set of school safety guidelines last week, emphasizing the role of school climate in preventing school violence.
Schools should not add armed officers in an attempt to improve safety because, instead of protecting schools, the strategy could lead to more juvenile arrests for minor offenses administrators could handle themselves, said the groups, which include the NAACP, the Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of School Counselors, and the School Social Work Association of America. They advocate instead for adding counselors and mental health providers and working on the relationships between students and adults at schools so that if students have information about safety or harassment issues, they’ll have someone to tell.
The groups’ plan, “A Real Fix: The Gun-Free Way To School Safety,” also was a reaction to President Barack Obama’s proposal to add up to 1,000 school resource officers to public school campuses. Mr. Obama said the money could also be used for school counselors and he pushed Congress to give schools money for improving school climate.
Other groups reacted with anger to the proposal as well, including the National Education Association.
We are deeply concerned about increasing the presence of guns on school grounds, which has never [been] proven to be a deterrent. A national poll found that educators overwhelmingly support stronger laws to prevent gun violence, rejecting the NRA leaders' idea of putting more guns in schools by arming school employees. ... We urge our elected leaders to put the lives of America's students ahead of politics, shelve this ill-conceived approach and join the rest of the nation as we call on Congress to pass a real plan that will keep our students safe.
Perhaps also of note: Another national survey found that a majority of teachers would rather not carry guns to school.
Mr. Obama’s January proposal also says that by May, the U.S. departments of Education, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security will come up with their own model for high-quality emergency-management plans for schools, best practices for developing those plans, and ways to train students and staff members to follow them.
Top Photo: National School Shield Task Force Director, former Arkansas Rep. Asa Hutchinson, details the group’s findings during Tuesday’s news conference in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
Photo: Mark Mattioli, the father of a child killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, addresses the media during a news conference at the National Press Club on Tuesday in Washington, where he talked about his support for the National School Shield program. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.