School Climate & Safety

School Shootings Reverberate on Capitol Hill

By Andrew Ujifusa & Denisa R. Superville — April 24, 2018 6 min read
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The deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., continues to reverberate on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers—particular some from Florida—hear from school officials, educators, and students about ways to secure schools and empower students and staff against violence.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, also used one such event last week to tout their support for having the federal government offer states incentives to adopt “red flag” laws that prevent those who represent a threat to themselves or others from accessing or purchasing guns, while preserving legal protections for those individuals.

Last month, the two introduced a bill to this effect, the Extreme Risk Protection Order and Violence Prevention Act, after the Parkland shooting.

At that same school safety forum, advocates and public officials also emphasized the importance of communication to make it easier for students to share their concerns with adults and to help law enforcement respond to violent incidents more quickly.

Nicole Hockley, whose son was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, highlighted the “Start With Hello” training program that helps children communicate with each other about their difficulties. The program is run by Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit group led by Hockley that works to prevent children from violence. “It sounds so simple. But the best programs are,” Hockley said at the April 18 event. And Indiana officials attending the session pointed to a school that’s become a model for new security measures, from bullet-resistant classroom doors to smoke bombs that can fill a hallway and disorient a school shooter. (The latter clocks in at a cost of $400,000.) Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill said the state has emphasized “what we can do to harden our schools, but not make them a prison.”

In expressing interest in creating national school safety standards, Rubio pointed to the Americans With Disabilities Act that created national building standards to address the needs of people with disabilities. While he said the analogy to gun violence and school safety isn’t perfect, “It’s an indication of where federal policy could help over time.”

Nelson praised the “courageous” students and other activists who have pushed for new gun-control measures and safer schools. He said he was focused on “trying to get stuff done that we can get done in a bipartisan way.”

Outlets for Students

Like Hockley, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes stressed that officials must ensure students have outlets to share their concerns with people in authority so that ultimately law enforcement can respond quickly.

Students in Utah can use the Safe UT app, commissioned by the University of Utah, to report possible threats to themselves or others. The app is monitored around the clock by mental-health professionals, who can then triage the reports and notify police when appropriate. In February, more than two dozen tips about potential threats were reported using the app, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Others, however, spoke about the need for broader cultural changes to help children feel supported. Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, spoke about the “contagion” effect that can lead one school shooting to lead to further violent incidents.

“I think we can put an antibiotic together” to help stop this, said Petty. He added that helping students contemplating suicide would be especially useful in keeping children and their school peers safe.

An ‘Unfunded Obligation’

Just a day before that session, school and district leaders who’ve experienced the trauma and devastation of school shootings offered additional suggestions for Congress and other elected officials during a panel on school safety hosted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The principals and superintendents shared their experiences leading schools after shootings, what worked in their communities and the needs that still linger.

Dale Marsden is the superintendent of the school district in San Bernardino, Calif., where two terrorists killed 14 people about two miles from a district elementary school in 2015, and where, in 2017, the estranged husband of a special education teacher shot and killed his wife along with an 8-year-old boy at North Park Elementary School.

The district received $69,000 from Project SERV, a federal grant to help districts and schools recover from traumatic events, after the North Park shooting, but so far, the district has spent more than $5 million on school safety, training, mental health support, and on facilities, Marsden said.

“School safety has now become our district’s largest unfunded obligation,” Marsden said.

The call for increasing the Project SERV grant was repeated by George Roberts, who was principal of Perry Hall High School in Maryland’s Baltimore County where one student shot another student in the cafeteria on the first day of school in 2012. Nearly six years later, teachers still call him whenever there is another school shooting in the U.S., Roberts said.

Roberts said there needs to be more programs to support educators in the aftermath of a shooting. One such program could fund a “quick response” team that would reach out to principals and district leaders to provide guidance on what to expect and how to rebuild a positive climate and supportive school culture after a shooting.

Principals and superintendents who’ve experienced school shootings already do this informally.

“We are not trained as first responders, we are trained as educators,” he said.

Marsden also floated the need for a central state agency in charge of school safety.

A large district with about 50,000 students, San Bernardino had many of the resources in place that it needed to help recover, he said. But he imagines that it would be much more difficult for a small district to navigate a shooting and the aftermath without any services from state agencies.

And Marsden said there is a role for the federal government to play in ensuring that there is an agency at the state level that would provide help to districts after a school shooting, similar to the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency springs into action after a disaster.

“When you have an incident at a school site, there needs to be a mechanism that deploys resources,” he said.

Warman Hall, the principal of Aztec High School in New Mexico, where two students were killed when a former student entered the school last December and started shooting, called for more money through Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act to help districts with school safety and mental health training.

In the months since the shooting, there have been multiple offers in the community to help with counseling, but he said there is a dearth of mental health providers in the community, he said.

Working With Police

He’s a big proponent of making it easier for law enforcement officers and schools to collaborate—on training for school shooting exercises and for law enforcement to be able to use the schools for such training. And he thinks that collaboration between schools and local emergency management should be a factor in funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

Hall also said that law enforcement officials—from the Federal Bureau of Information to local law enforcement—should be able to sit down with school officials to talk about potential threats in the community and that school officials should be able to go to law enforcement about concerns that may require a police response.

U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat whose district includes Parkland, where a former student killed 17 people in a high school massacre on Feb. 14, gave credit to the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the movement they ignited after their school shooting.

He ticked off the list of legislative changes related to guns and school safety that have been made both in Florida and in Washington since the students started their advocacy.

And Billy Wermuth, a student at North Penn High School in Lansdale, Pa., who serves on the NASSP’s Student Leadership Advisory Committee, echoed the sentiment.

“We hope policymakers will be open to hearing us if not because of our ideas, but because four million of my peers will turn 18 before the November elections,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2018 edition of Education Week as School Shootings Reverberate on Capitol Hill


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