School Climate & Safety

Shootings Propel States Into Action on Safety

By Robert C. Johnston — May 05, 1999 4 min read
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State leaders around the country are intensifying efforts to curb school violence and reconsidering proposals on gun rights in the wake of the shooting deaths of 15 people at a Colorado high school.

Governors and legislators want stiffer penalties against gun-toting students, heightened security at schools, and summits on youth violence. But many policymakers also argue that early preventive measures offer more promise for stopping violence than plans that stress punitive actions.

“We’re getting more questions about why and how to prevent this,” said Mary Child, a juvenile-justice policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. “Legislators are saying: ‘We passed tough laws. Why is this happening?’ ”

The April 20 rampage by two boys who killed 12 fellow students, one teacher, and then themselves at Columbine High School near Denver has prompted several new bills in state legislatures and revived languishing youth-crime measures.

Those initiatives are paralleled by renewed attention to youth-crime and gun-control proposals at the federal level.

N.Y., Calif. Proposals

Early last week, Gov. George E. Pataki of New York unveiled a plan for curtailing school violence. The package would toughen existing criminal penalties for gun crimes, authorize principals to suspend disruptive students from school, encourage retired police officers to work in schools by waiving pension-related salary caps, and enhance the collection of data on school violence.

“Tragedies like last week’s sadistic attacks in Littleton must renew our determination to protect our children,” Mr. Pataki, a Republican, said in a prepared statement. The state Senate was expected to take up the bill late last week.

California Assemblyman Jack Scott, a Democrat, offered a bill to create a team of psychologists, counselors, other mental-health experts, and law-enforcement professionals to respond to violent school incidents statewide.

Meanwhile, the education committee of the Assembly, the lower house of the California legislature, approved a bill that would establish a task force to review state laws and make recommendations on school violence. And the Assembly panel scheduled a May 19 hearing on school violence.

“My hope is that we will get serious about prevention,” said Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni, the Democrat who chairs the committee. “If we are going to really change things, we have to invest in early-childhood education and helping dysfunctional families.”

Identifying Loners

In Florida, a bill passed by the House late last month would require students caught with a gun in school to be detained and evaluated by professionals to determine if they posed a danger to others.

“It’s very new to attempt such a mandate,” said Larry Sullivan, the associate executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists in Washington. “But [the evaluations] would need to be comprehensive and linked to intervention.”

Schools are understaffed for such work, Mr. Sullivan added. Overall, U.S. schools have one psychologist on staff for every 180,000 students, he said.

In Rhode Island, a bill introduced last week by Democratic Sen. John A. Celona calls for a panel to write a plan to “identify low-self-esteem young people and ... members of self-styled groups of loners and outcasts” and outline ways to work positively with such youths. The Senate there also passed a nonbinding resolution asking local school committees to create mandatory dispute-resolution programs.

Following the Columbine High shootings, Indiana lawmakers returned to Gov. Frank O’Bannon’s stalled plan to expand the 2-year-old Safe Havens Schools program. The Democratic governor wants to raise spending on the program, from $3 million this year to $14 million, to put safety specialists in each of the state’s 249 school districts and provide safety grants.

The Republican-controlled Indiana Senate rejected the changes in March and cut funding for the program to $1. The proposal seemed to have gained new momentum in final budget talks last week, however. “We are pretty optimistic there will be bipartisan support to provide additional funding to do some semblance of what our bill was,” said Larry Grau, the governor’s education adviser.

Gun Measures Deferred

Elsewhere, governors responded differently to the Colorado tragedy. California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, pledged that his state would pass the toughest assault weapons ban in the country.

And, in Virginia, Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, directed all schools to make sure they have state-mandated crisis plans in place and report suspicious activities to police. Another Republican, Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, urged school districts to hold community forums on school violence.

Gov. Mel Carnahan of Missouri, a Democrat, said he would form an 11-member task force to study strategies to prevent school violence. A report will be due Oct. 11.

Perhaps the most contentious legislative issue following the April 20 shootings has been gun control. In some cases, lawmakers were quick to drop or defer measures favorable to gun makers or owners.

Legislatures in Florida and North Carolina dropped proposals, at least for now, that would have barred class actions by municipalities against gunmakers akin to the cases pursued against tobacco companies in recent years.

Meanwhile, Alabama, Colorado, and Michigan lawmakers have put off bills that would give gun owners more freedom to carry concealed firearms. And in Tennessee, Democratic Rep. Ben West Jr. abandoned a bill to let holders of handgun permits carry guns on to school property.

A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 1999 edition of Education Week as Shootings Propel States Into Action on Safety

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