The Trump administration has unveiled a “one-stop shop” for school safety resources, fulfilling one promise contained in the 180-page report of the federal commission it set up in the wake of the massacre in Parkland, Fla., America’s deadliest shooting in a high school.
A joint effort of the U.S. departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Justice, the website—https://www.schoolsafety.gov—went live Monday as several parents whose children were killed in the rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School met with President Trump at the White House just ahead of the two-year anniversary of the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting.
The idea of the federal school safety clearinghouse gained traction after some of those parents urged the federal lawmakers to establish best practices, citing the confusion among law enforcement agencies and school officials in Parkland as a former student came onto campus and opened fire, killing 17 and wounding 17 others.
School safety is largely a state and local concern, rather than a priority of the federal government. But as one Parkland parent who helped beta-test the new website pointed out, there is power in its ability to bring a powerful spotlight to an urgent issue.
“We’re cognizant of people not wanting Washington in their schools,” said Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was killed. “But one thing the federal government does, in general, is they’re excellent in providing us with safety standards: safety standards for our cars, safety standards for aircraft, safety standards for the car seats that we put our children in. So why shouldn’t there be safety standards for safe schools?”
Nothing in federal law or on the new website requires states, district, or schools to adopt any specific safety practices. The website mainly refers them to guidance, grants, and training opportunities offered by the federal agencies, as well as some third party resources.
Montalto, who is the president of Stand With Parkland, the advocacy group set up by the families of the victims who were killed, said communities should tailor the recommendations to their own needs.
But to the extent that they carry the federal government’s imprimatur, the site’s recommendations could be influential in shaping the roiling public policy debate over how to prevent violence in schools.
Deborah Temkin, the vice president for youth development and education research at Child Trends, a research organization, praised the federal clearinghouse for including a focus on prevention strategies—like improving overall school climate and mental health—not merely on “hardening” schools with armed guards, metal detectors, and perimeter security.
But, she added, the bulk of the content repeats information already located on other federal sources, like the Education Department’s own Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools technical-assistance center, and some of its suggestions are explained in greater details in the federal commission’s own 2018 report.
“I think in part every administration wants to leave its own mark around these issues. They want to show they’re doing something,” Temkin said. “But we just don’t know what is working and what is not, and we also don’t know some of the potentially negative effects of these policies.”
She highlighted concerns that active-shooter trainings could traumatize young children and that even research-based policies, like threat assessment, might further stigmatize students of color or students with disabilities if poorly implemented.
Multiple Sources of ‘Best Practices’ for School Safety
Educators who visit the federal website can take an online assessment, which asks a series of questions on topics like emergency operation plans, school climate surveys, threat assessment, and dedicated security personnel. and then crafts an action plan listing “high priority” steps they can take to improve those policies.
At least one section of the website is closed to the public and requires further verification to access. The secure portion of the site is meant for school security personnel and law enforcement to network and share specific plans and compare policies. Those seeking access to that section must fill out a questionnaire that the Homeland Security department will review to grant access. It was not immediately clear what criteria the agency would use to make those determinations.
Legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress to formally establish the clearinghouse in the Homeland Security department, which would in effect allow the agency to dedicate ongoing funding and personnel to it. The House version has bipartisan support, although neither measure has progressed yet.
A number of other school safety groups have also recently pledged to expand resource collections for educators. The National Association of School Resource Officers, for example, recently announced that it too would craft a set of national best-practices guidelines for minimizing violence in schools.
A more heavy-handed federal role is unlikely: During the federal commission’s hearings, some parents had urged the panel to recommend conditioning federal aid for school safety on the adoption of specific practices, but that idea was not included in its report, nor in the Trump administration’s fiscal 2021 budget, which was also released Monday.
In fact, in 2018, a furor erupted after Texas officials asked the Education Department if they could use funds under the broad $1 billion federal Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants to purchase guns and other security equipment. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos ultimately chose not to issue guidance on the matter.
An alternative version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as Federal School Safety Center Focuses on Prevention