School Climate & Safety

The Federal School Safety Commission in Six Key Takeaways

By Alyson Klein — January 15, 2019 6 min read
At a White House meeting to unveil the final report from the Federal Commission on School Safety, Scarlett Lewis, second from left, holds up a photo of her son Jesse Lewis, who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.

States and school districts would bear the weight of implementing most of the recommendations from a high-level Trump administration commission on how to safeguard students and school staff from mass shootings and other violence.

The Federal Commission on Safety, chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and led by her and three other Cabinet secretaries, spent months hearing from experts, advocates, and the public in the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February. Here are some key takeaways from its 19-chapter, 180-page report, issued Dec. 18:

Little talk about gun restrictions.

Many Parkland students, Democrats, and education advocacy groups have urged action on gun restrictions. But DeVos said early on that the commission wouldn’t be dealing with guns, for the most part. The report took a pass on urging age restrictions for firearms purchases, one of few areas dealing with guns that President Donald Trump urged the commission to look at.

“The available research does not support the conclusion that age restrictions for firearms purchases are effective in reducing homicides, suicides, or unintentional deaths,” the report says. “Most school shooters obtain their weapons from family members or friends rather than by purchasing them.”

But the commission did encourage states to adopt “extreme-risk protection orders,” which temporarily bar people who pose a threat to themselves or others from buying guns.

A nod toward the arming of “specially selected and trained” school staff.

The report encourages states and districts to consider placing more armed school personnel in schools, including but not limited to school resource officers. That also is no surprise, given that Trump made it clear he thought the death toll in Parkland would have been lower if the teachers had been armed.

The commission specifically suggests that districts might want to hire more staff with prior experience using firearms, including military veterans or retired law-enforcement officials. It recommends districts may want to provide incentives to entice these folks to join the education profession and make it easier for them to become certified teachers.

The report notes that some Department of Justice grants can be used to help train and arm school staff. But it doesn’t specifically say schools can use a flexible block grant in the Every Student Succeeds Act as well, even though that’s DeVos’ department’s interpretation of the law. (ESSA’s Democratic architects read the legislation differently.)

Scrapping the Obama-era discipline guidance.

Advocates saw this one coming from a mile away, in part because DeVos already was exploring changes to the guidance before the commission was convened, and she followed through by revoking the guidance just days after the report came out.

The guidance, issued in 2014, put schools on notice that they may be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if they enforce intentionally discriminatory rules—or even if their policies lead to disproportionately higher rates of discipline for students in one racial group or for students in special education, even if those policies were written without discriminatory intent.

Critics of the guidance say it limited teachers’ ability to discipline students and amounted to federal overreach. But backers of the guidance said it helped bolster civil rights protections of students who are often overlooked and motivated states and districts to take a second look at their disciplinary practices, making changes that have benefited everyone.

School districts that have revamped their practices in response to the guidance could stick with the changes if they want—and some educators are hoping they will.

Lots of support—but no new money—for mental-health services.

The report calls out a number of strategies for boosting mental health in schools, including positive behavioral supports and interventions, or PBIS, a strategy that was used at Stoneman Douglas and other schools that have been victimized by shootings. It also highlights social-emotional learning, character education, mental-health literacy, and more.

But it doesn’t call for any new federal resources for those activities. Instead, it leaves funding up to states. Specifically: “States should provide resources for their schools to help create a positive school climate where students feel connected to, rather than isolated from, their teachers and fellow students,” the report says.

Needless to say, advocates for school districts aren’t so happy about that.

“The commission has chosen to ‘pass the buck’ to states, hoping that states will find the money to support state and district efforts, or worse, advise federal agencies on how they can use limited, existing federal resources to comprehensively address the myriad of challenges that prevent tragedies in schools,” said Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, in a statement.

A call for districts to make schools “harder” targets.

The commission notes that Stoneman Douglas had some clear security vulnerabilities. For instance, teachers could only lock their classroom doors from the outside, and classroom windows weren’t well-reinforced, allowing the alleged perpetrator to shoot right through them. The commission wants schools, districts, and states to make sure they take a hard look at potential problems with their facilities through “risk assessments.” The commission suggested that the federal government set up a clearinghouse that districts can use to share strong security strategies.

Interestingly, this is the one area where the report may be calling for new resources, or at least shifting federal dollars.

“The [Department of Homeland Security] in partnership with the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, should explore legislative, regulatory, or procedural modifications to existing grant programs to enable more grant funding or related resources to be available for enhancing school security operations and physical infrastructure,” the report says.

Jacki Ball, the director of government affairs for the National PTA, hopes that won’t mean shifting resources away from school counselors and the like. “We want to focus more on the people, not the products,” she said.

It’s mostly going to be up to states and districts to implement these policies.

Unfinished business.

There are far more recommendations in the report for states, districts, and schools than there are for the federal government. That’s by design.

“Our recommendations can assist states and local communities, but ultimately governors and state legislators should work with local school leaders, teachers, parents, and students to address their own unique challenges and develop their own specific solutions,” DeVos told reporters in rolling out the report.

The laundry list of recommendations cover a wide range of issues: cyberbullying (but not specifically regular bullying), psychotropic drugs (which Oliver North, the president of the National Rifle Association, has suggested are linked to school shootings), the effects of press coverage on mass shootings, violent entertainment and video-game rating systems, the FBI’s public-access line, and more.

But it’s unclear how useful the recommendations will be to the field.

“The recommendations are not written in a way that was friendly to decisionmakers,” said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of government relations at the National Association of School Psychologists. “This is a lot of text and time. ... What they have clearly done is advance the agenda they had before this even started.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2019 edition of Education Week as School Safety Commission: Six Takeaways

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